We seem to be talking a lot about the Conservatives lately as they set an agenda that the left and centre left are forced to respond to. Take Iain Duncan Smith, who entered the lion’s den of the Labour Party conference to speak on Tory social justice – even if he was opposed only by me.
A large audience probably came because they were intrigued to hear a former Thatcherite who has committed himself to the cause of social justice since visiting deprived areas as leader of his party. He has also founded the Centre for Social Justice, which makes awards to small voluntary bodies. This year, the outstanding project was one serving domestic migrants, something that unnerved some Conservatives.
IDS was insistent. He is sympathetic towards economic incomers. At the meeting IDS spoke about the value of locally based projects, before switching to another of his favourite themes: the need to promote marriage on the grounds that married couples stay together longer. He criticised the tax credit systems as expensive and inefficient.
I had anticipated all this and had planned to say: “Yes, but Tory social justice ignores poverty and inequality.” To my surprise, IDS then focused on these very subjects.
The days of Conservatives saying there was no such thing as poverty were over. He considered that New Labour’s definition of poverty as an income below 60 per cent of median income was too stringent. He attacked the government for a tax system
weighted against the poor. Most radically, he asserted that the important topic was relative poverty, the “measure of the distance that the poorest people in society fall behind everyone else” – and that this should include assets as well as income. He drew upon Adam Smith, usually the darling of the free marketeers, who argued that it was not enough to provide the poor with food and shelter.
Here we had a former Tory leader challenging inequality. Tony Blair, in a pre-conference speech on social exclusion, called for intensive treatment for the bottom 2 per cent to make them more responsible members of society. IDS was implying that those at the bottom required enough money to reduce the financial gap – only then would they be able to act like other citizens.
How could I follow that? I started by asking whether he would stand as deputy leader of the Labour Party. He declined – obviously too right wing for him. While welcoming his emphasis on relative poverty, I said his statements were as vague as
David Cameron’s soundbites. He did not specify a target for reducing inequality. Does he aim to reduce differentials to no
more than a ratio of three to one within 10 years? Is he ready to redistribute the assets of the fat cats? He omitted to talk about the application of principles to his own life.
Is IDS prepared to live on a much lower income as an example to others? Hands shot up to ask questions. All were for IDS and he answered them fluently, although he did duck one about Tory housing policy. Afterwards, he lingered to chat with people in the audience. He is not a politician who marches in, delivers a talk and leaves as soon as possible.
When he arrived in Manchester, a police officer recognised IDS and offered police protection. He declined and quipped, “I
might do at the Conservative conference”. Certainly, his stand on social justice will annoy traditional Tories. On the other hand, he may draw in new supporters. Recently, I met a young social worker who joined the Conservatives after seeing IDS on TV during his visit to Easterhouse in Glasgow.
The Labour Party needs an equivalent of IDS, a political heavyweight who will challenge inequality, will propose tax changes
in favour of the poor, will call for financial backing for local groups and will spend time with people at the hard end.
Bob Holman is an author and voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow