A life-long socialist, I attended the Conservative Party conference
in Bournemouth. The party is re-positioning itself and a new
departure saw a whole day devoted to “compassionate Conservatism”.
Leader Iain Duncan Smith declared: “No decent society can walk away
from its moral duty to improve the quality of life in poor
In his visit to the Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow, Duncan Smith
stated that he wanted to improve conditions. Conservative
vice-president Gary Streeter argues that the attack on poverty must
be their number one priority. Caroline Spelman, the shadow minister
for overseas development, publicly criticised the way in which the
US reinforces poverty abroad. These are the committed.
At Bournemouth, certain directions became clear. Centrally imposed
targets should be replaced by more discretion for doctors, the
police, teachers and, hopefully, social workers. Bureaucracy should
be slashed. Benefits should be simplified.
The actual policies were thin. Scholarships to private schools,
state contributions to private health care, and selling off housing
association flats will not do much for the residents of deprived
areas. The promise of lifetime savings accounts will not help
today’s pensioners. David Willetts refused to consider replacing
the disastrous social fund loans by grants for essential items.
Above all, the new compassion does not extend to setting a
realistic poverty line.
At a breakfast for voluntary agencies, Duncan Smith indicated that
he wanted them to take on tasks “currently executed by arms of
government”. Even the national voluntary societies are not equipped
to run, say, large-scale education and social work services. The
result would be patchy provision by bodies that are not directly
accountable to elected representatives.
More positively, the Conservative leader did promise public money
for locally-run projects, something which New Labour has failed to
do. Such projects are best at running neighbourhood services.
It is capitalism that creates poverty and inequality yet all the
main political parties remain devotees of the free market.
Compassionate Conservatism is to be welcomed in that it may
humanise its adverse effects. But it needs to be linked with a
strong desire for justice. And justice entails that capitalism
comes off its throne.
Bob Holman is a voluntary neighbourhood worker for the
Easterhouse Project, Glasgow.