Tuesday, October 10, 2006

If not now, when?

The lesson learned, particularly by the Brownites, from the Make Poverty History campaign appears to be that before the government can do anything significantly progressive, the public need to be mobilised to think it is important and support it.

They've certainly got a point. After all, who can forget the massive grassroots campaign to change public opinion and force the government to set up Sure Start? Or introduce a minimum wage? Or tax credits? Or commit to ending child poverty in a generation?

Hmm. Far from being examples of the public demanding action, in each of these cases the government just got on and led, at a time when none were political priorities as defined by opinion polls or any other measure of public opinion. The idea behind Sure Start came from the New Democrats, the minimum wage from the trade unions, tax credits from Gordon Brown and his team and ending child poverty by 2020 from Tony Blair. These are now all part of the politicial consensus and cited by ministers and activists whenever they are trying to persuade people to look beyond Iraq or NHS cuts or whatever to remember why it is good and important to have a Labour government.

For all the good that these policies have done, there are still millions of people in Britain today living in poverty, and levels of inequality has barely changed since the days of John Major. The new government policies are based around another reorganisation of public services, based on the idea that people live in poverty because of individual bad choices that they make. When asked, ministers say that they have to try to justify these policies in terms of savings to the taxpayer and sanctions for the 'undeserving', because the public won't support the moral case for reducing poverty or inequality.

Just imagine if instead of this, the government announced an intention to close the gap between rich and poor and devoted all of its powers to eliminating poverty as quickly as possible, even if it meant that next year company directors only got an average pay rise twice the national average, rather than nine times as they did this year. Just for a start, it would unite the Labour Party like no other issue - more or less everyone who spends time helping Labour is instinctively on the side of the underdog and wants a fairer and more equal society, whatever their views about the leadership, the need for an independent nuclear deterrent, whether British troops should be in Iraq, the viability of the Alternative Economic Strategy or anything else.

It is traditional in these sorts of arguments to claim that such a change of policy would be overwhelmingly popular. My own view is that rule one of political strategy is that anyone who writes a diary about politics on the internet should by definition be disregarded when they claim to know what the public would think about any particular policy proposal. But if ever a campaign to reduce and eliminate poverty were to be successful, it would surely be at a time when Labour was in government, when the opposition was weak and during a time of economic prosperity. It's not going to get any easier to make the case for closing the gap and ending poverty, whatever ministers may hope. So the question is not so much 'do opinion polls show that reducing poverty in Britain is currently identified by a majority of people as a priority?', and instead 'how we can use all the resources of government, the party and our allies to take the lead, win the argument and make it a priority?' Or, put another way, if not now, when?


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