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Duncan enters the lions’ den

2006 September 29
by Paul Vallely

Away from all the leadership hoo-haa at the Labour Party conference something interesting was going on in a fringe meeting in Manchester Art Gallery this week. The Christian Socialist Movement had an unexpected guest, the former leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, who was there to address a meeting on the subject “Can the Tories do social justice?”

A policeman at Piccadilly Station had done a double-take when the Tory politician got off the train. “What on earth are you doing here?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you have protection?” No, said Duncan Smith, it’s next week I’ll need that – a gag at which his audience of Labour loyalists had the decency to laugh.

There was no getting away from the fact that it was a brave thing for Duncan Smith to do, as the aggressive tribalism of some of the other party faithful’s questioning revealed. But Duncan in the lion’s den was, unexpectedly, a rather inspiring occasion.

He began with something of an admission for a Tory. His concern was not absolute poverty but relative poverty, the idea that it is not just not having enough to live on that is the problem – but that the relative gap between the poor and the rest of society that is a problem for community cohesion. He quoted Adam Smith, in support, in a passage where the Tory economic guru noted that a good linen shirt could not be considered a necessity – it was possible to live without it – but it was not right to expect a Scottish worker seeking employment to bear the social shame of appearing in the market place without one.

And so Duncan Smith went on, explaining how his travels around Britain as Tory leader had opened his eyes to a new social reality– and taken him to a succession of extraordinary voluntary self-help projects which were enabling individuals to pull themselves from the swamp of poverty. He spoke of the Centre for Social Justice he had set up to examine questions of not just low income but also of the interconnected traps of debt, failure in education, family breakdown and drug addiction. He even quoted Polly Toynbee.

There were cynics in the audience. How come he didn’t say any of that when he was leader? Why did the Tories oppose the minimum wage? Why are they still so down on Gordon Brown’s working tax credits? But it would be a pity if the fusillade of understandable scepticism were to disguise the extraordinary nature of the Damascene conversion the former Tory leader has undergone.

Testimony to the genuineness of that came from a former academic who has spent the last 30 years working as an unpaid social worker on two of Britain’s toughest housing estates. Bob Holman is the nearest thing the Labour movement has to a saint. He is a Christian socialist who practices what he preaches and who rails like an Old Testament prophet against everyone – including his own party when in power it neglects the interests of the poor. What struck Holman was the fact that, after the then Tory leader visited his project on Easterhouse estate in Glasgow, he said he would be back – he was and he has kept in touch privately ever since.

What was refreshing was the openness and non-partisan manner Duncan Smith brought to many of the questions on how to crack poverty. His Centre for Social Justice is due to report in December and will then work on specific policy solutions to be presented next July.  To judge by what we heard this week they will be well worth listening to.

Can the Tories do social justice? The answer appears to be that some of them can. Whether they – or to be more specific, he – can persuade the rest of his party to come along on the journey is another matter.

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