Saturday 20 September 2008

IDS finds common ground with Labour audience and Polly Toynbee

"You think it is tough for me to come here – you wait until I go to my conference next week", former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith told the Fabian fringe audience as he spoke on 'Can Middle England care about equality?' alongside Martin Narey of the End Child Poverty coalition, Polly Toynbee, Liam Byrne and Dianne Hayter of the Webb Memorial Trust.

And IDS seemed to have given some thought to how to find some common ground with his audience.

First, in his scepticism about right-wing newspapers and his calls for politicians to not try to persuade the press first.

“The answer to the question ‘Can Middle England care about inequality?’ is: I don’t know. If by Middle England, we mean the Mail and the Sun, I think the answer is absolutely not. If by Middle England, we mean the places where people live, then I think perhaps we can reach out to those communities without going through the filter of somebody else, and waiting for somebody else to interpret our words"

Secondly, in trying to find common ground on social housing and fears about its residualisation, a common argument on the left, and the case for mixed communities.

As this is the Labour conference, you will say you sold the Council Houses [laughter, applause]. The first problem was in selling them and not investing to buy the conferences back. But the second problem was in the narrowing of who qualifies to get a council house ... So the answer of why middle England doesn't care about inequality is that they don’t really see it. It is taken away from them. It is ring-fenced. You don’t live with it – you live alongside people who have roughly the same income as you”

Thirdly, in becoming a champion of the 'early years' agenda. IDS said he felt a cross-party agreement on increasing spending across the next two decades of politics.

“We have looked at poverty as how much more money can you spend on this. I am not doubting that money is absolutely central to this. But the question is where do you spend it”

“Across both parties, we seem to have no problem spending lots of money banging people up. But if we could spend that on children aged 0 – 3, if we could spend that early enough, then we could change these people's lives and that of their children.

But this is something that will take 15 to 20 years: we should refocus our money on the earliest years, but it can not be done if we change our minds every four years and cut the budgets because Chancellors can not see it delivering a return quickly enough. So I propose that this area should be agreed earlier in the manifestos – and not subject to short-term cutting

This left-leaning argument slightly disarmed Polly Toynbee of The Guardian:

“Its very good to hear such resounding support for SureStart” (applause). It has been one of the great landmarks of the Labour era. It really is the absolute hope of the future and if you can persuade your party to keep it, and keep investing in it, and if you can persuade Local Conservative Councils to keep investing in it, and if you can persuade them to invest in social housing as there is often a great of reluctance”

“So I will resist the temptation to make partisan remarks of is Britain broken, and who broke it, and was it something to do with the 1980s, as it sounds as though you now understand the need to invest in children and the earliest years”

But IDS won agreement from Toynbee with a critique of whether SureStart was focused enough on its original goals:

"The one thing is that we both talk about the origin of SureStart and what it set out to do. Sure Start set out with the right idea. The first purpose was about early intervention, working with parents and children. The problem is that it has become too patchy, and almost all about childcare in some areas, and frankly not childcare for the people it was initially intended for>

Toynbee agreed: ‘If you talk about real help, it is professional support and it is expensive. It has to be more than an aspiration, it has to be a real commitment"

IDS suggested he might have a tougher time dealing with scepticism and selfishness on the Tory fringe (where he will speak to a Fabian/Centre for Social Justice fringe next week).

The way you might persuade Middle England about all of this. If you live in Middle England, you are dominated by a huge amount of self-interest. There is nothing nasty about self-interest; that is the natural aspiration to do better for yourself and your children.

You think it is tough for me to come here – you wait until I go to my conference next week. They will say: why should I give a damn. We worked hard. Why should I spend more money on this? Its their problem, not ours – and if they can’t bring up their children, put them in care or something”

IDS said the only answer to this argument was to appeal to self-interest: "we spend billions in the money spent in the care system – and yet their outcomes are even worse than if we left them with the most dysfunctional parents you could possibly have. Yet we are paying for that: you have to make sure people have got their heads around that".

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