So there is to be a cabinet minister for social exclusion. Hang out the bunting. Prepare the street parties. Let the disadvantaged celebrate with a display of choreographed forelock-tugging.
As opposition parties have rightly pointed out, we’ve had a cabinet minister for social exclusion before. Mo Mowlem, though, wasn’t prepared to be the kind of figurehead mouthing comforting platitudes that New Labour considered necessary.
Tony Blair’s latest pronouncement at the Scottish Labour conference seems little more than a sop to the liberal wing of his party. It is both unworkable and unnecessary.
It is unworkable because social exclusion is a cross-cutting issue that affects every aspect of government: employment, education, pensions, local government, health, crime and antisocial behaviour - the lot. It is unnecessary because if a government is genuinely concerned to tackle social exclusion, this should be near the top of every minister’s agenda. If we need a separate cabinet minister to remind them of the challenges of poverty and disadvantage, they’re not doing their job.
Those with longish memories may recall the launch of the Social Exclusion Unit way back in 1997. The promise then - and Mr Blair may dimly recall this - was that this was the prime minister’s personal campaign. The Social Exclusion Unit would answer to him, and he would oversee the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal that emerged from its evidence-gathering.
That evidence-gathering was both comprehensive and ground-breaking. But since then, commissions on poverty and disadvantage, think tanks and policy units have sprouted up faster than acne on an adolescent. There appears to be much more enthusiasm for writing new reports than for learning the lessons of the old ones.
No wonder the Power Inquiry has found a widespread disillusionment with politics and distrust of politicians. No wonder those who dedicate their lives to making a difference find themselves frustrated by governments that make all the right noises but appear to believe the answer is always another pilot programme or rearrangement of bureaucratic responsibilities.
The Power Inquiry offers a more radical solution to our political malaise that has the potential to do far more to address social exclusion than any ministerial appointment. Its recommendations will inevitably be controversial; but its analysis must be taken seriously.
Julian Dobson, editor
- New Start Online Online magazine