I am just back from Birmingham where I chaired an ippr fringe event, 'Can the Conservatives be the Party of the Poor?' Greg Clark MP, shadow minister for Charities, Social Enterprise and Volunteering, was the Conservative tasked with convincing the audience that the answer is 'Yes'. Other panelists were Lord Victor Adebowale (Turning Point), Richard Reeves (Demos) and Martin Narey (Bernado's).
So, do the Conservatives have a credible anti-poverty policy?
Well, its hard to say since Greg Clark was rather vague on what Conservative policy is. His main presentation focused on what he saw as the weaknesses in New Labour's approach: too much focus on a specific child poverty target and on poverty as a purely cash phenomenon.
This led Jenni Russell of The Guardian to ask, quite reasonably, what the Conservatives themselves would do. Greg Clark replied, in essence, that the Conservatives would seek to 'empower communities'. To this, Jenni Russell replied, quite reasonably: 'Yes, but what would you DO?' Richard Reeves concluded that the Conservatives had not yet made the shift from a critique of New Labour to offering any concrete alternative. (Jenni Russell has written up her account of the event here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/30/toryconference.economy)
Moreover, what we do know about the Conservative approach is worrying. Greg Clark was keen to stress the multidimensionality of poverty. But this seemed to mean that we shouldn't place so much emphasis on the present government's income-based child poverty target. Two or three people, including Kate Green of Child Poverty Action Group, expressed concern about this. The good thing about the current child poverty target is that it offers a very clear way of holding government accountable for what its doing on poverty. The target offers a clear benchmark against which progress can be gauged. If the target is deemphasized, how do we hold a Conservative government accountable for its policy on poverty? What other target would the Conservatives set so that we could judge the success of their policies? So far as I could tell, Greg Clark had no answer to this question.
So the Conservatives, apparently, have little or no concrete policy on poverty and, apparently, little or no concrete idea of how to measure success or failure of any policy that they happen to develop.
Not exactly a 'government in waiting'....