Bob Holman invites the Prime Minister to sample life in poverty: 'The
Blairs could head a mission to tackle inequality'
WHEN HE WAS leader of the Conservative Party in 2002, Iain Duncan Smith
visited Easterhouse in Glasgow. Shocked by the reality of poverty, he said: "I
came away a changed man." As a result, he founded the Centre for Social
Tony Blair, like Iain Duncan Smith, had a privileged background - public
school, Oxford, legal training. He is sometimes accused of being out of touch.
During the last general-election campaign, he could not appreciate what a woman
was talking about when she complained of difficulties in seeing her GP. He and
Cherie Blair moved their children across London to a top state school. Poor
parents cannot do that.
I believe the Blairs are good people. Yet, having lived in deprived areas
for more than 25 years, I do not think they understand what it is like to be
poor. Mrs Blair experienced a working-class upbringing, but now, as a wealthy
lawyer whose friends are the famous and powerful, she has lost touch with her
Mr Blair is advocating harsh measures to drive recipients of incapacity
benefit into work. The ones I know lost their jobs when heavy industries
collapsed, and, after intermittent employment, sank into depression and
reliance on incapacity benefit. If Mr Blair had friends among this group, he
would realise that cutting their income is not the answer.
Again, he calls for punitive punishments for anti-social young people. As
one who has been threatened with a cleaver and a knife, I share his concern and
anger. None the less, my experience is that such youngsters need an adult they
can trust, as well as tough sanctions.
There is another reason why the Blairs should reach out to the sizeable
minority who are considered to be socially deprived. The Blairs are Christians,
and the Bible is full of exhortations to help the poor. Jesus never
condemned poor people, although he had stern words for the rich. I believe that
as all human beings are made in the image of God, so all should benefit from
the resources he has provided.
My suggestion is that the Blairs live in a flat on a deprived estate for a
couple of months in the next summer recess, on an income no higher than the
minimum wage and associated allowances, but with no savings. They would record
every penny they spend on food, clothes, rent, and so on.
They would be volunteers with a locally run community project, where their
legal training would be useful. For instance, they could advise adults paying
200-per-cent interest to legal loan sharks, and youngsters brought before the
courts. At the project's summer camp, Mr Blair would make an excellent sports
officer, while Mrs Blair's interest in fashion would engage the teenagers.
Living under canvas is not the same as the Blairs' usual vacation in the West
Indies. The compensation would be to have fun with kids, and friendships with
parents who give up their time to look after them.
The question of friendship is important. On the estate, the Blairs would not
be able to afford opera, ballet, or premier-league football. Instead, they
would have time to relate to neighbours: perhaps the widow struggling on an
inadequate pension; the middle-aged mother who has been abandoned by her
heavy-drinking partner, and finds it difficult to control her teenagers; the
unemployed man in his 50s who lacks the confidence even to go into town, but
who cleans the project's building.
I also go to these summer camps. This year, as usual, a local man took his
only "holiday" to toil in the cookhouse. A low-paid security guard, he and his
wife care for two grandchildren. A week after camp, their flat was burnt out,
and they lost most of their possessions. They carry on in temporary
accommodation. They are hard-working, caring people - and still poor. I'd like
the Blairs to know people like them.
On their return to Downing Street, I hope the Blairs would reflect on the
First, low incomes mean hardship. Even those just above the Government's
stringent poverty line get into debt. If the Blairs' cooker had broken down,
they might have had to replace it on credit that doubled its price. The Prime
Minister might then question his Government's recent refusal to put a cap on
such interest rates.
Second, in general, poverty is not down to individual fecklessness. Rather,
it occurs when ordinary citizens are crushed by overwhelming disadvantages.
Third, the problem is inequality, as well as poverty. Numerous households
have incomes of more than £100,000, own two homes, enjoy costly leisure, and
holiday abroad. Others struggle on less than £10,000, live in inadequate
accommodation, can afford little leisure, and never have a holiday.
Fourth, many residents of deprived areas support local projects that serve
their neighbourhoods. The Prime Minister might like to investigate why his
ministers pour millions into regeneration agencies run by outsiders, while
tossing financial peanuts at grassroots organisations.
Equipped with greater understanding of the problems, a deeper respect for
poor people, and a new passion for action, the Blairs could head a mission to
tackle poverty and inequality. They could do so during the Prime Minister's
remaining period in the Commons, and later as a lifetime commitment.
The proposal that the Blairs identify with the poor will be dismissed as
unrealistic. Cynics will say that they are more concerned with fame and
property than unknown people in poverty. But the precedent exists. George
Lansbury was leader of the Labour Party in the 1930s. As a Christian, he lived
alongside the unemployed, and befriended neighbours, not the establishment.
Today, numbers of Christians are moving into disadvantaged areas because
they believe that to do so is to obey God. The Son of God spent his life more
with the powerless than the powerful. The Blairs might choose, even for a few
months, to follow in his footsteps.
Bob Holman is Visiting Professor of Social Policy at the University of
Glasgow. Since 1987, he has run a project on the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow.