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Compassion for the vulnerable can’t be the preserve of a few

By Leon Spence

Last weekend I found myself at a ‘rubber chicken dinner’ to raise funds for the Conservative party.

You don’t need to be a Tory to know exactly the sort of event I am talking about. You will have encountered them if you support any other political party or have bought a ticket for virtually any other charity or good cause fundraiser.

These dinners are invariably held in conference rooms at three or four star hotels. To gain entry you will have paid well above the odds for your ticket; and there will, of course, be the obligatory raffle or auction.

For dinner you will have invariably been served with the mass catered choice of pate or soup to start and profiteroles and cheesecake for dessert; of course the chain hotel will ensure a fresh raspberry is presented on top of your chosen pudding to at least nod to the fact that some effort went into preparation other than simply removing things from packets and freezers.

And, of course, your main course is, nearly always a choice of beef or a thoroughly dried out slice of chicken – from which the term derives its name.

I don’t think anyone really enjoys rubber chicken dinners but we all know that they are something to be endured for the sake of a good cause.

Over the years I have been to more than my fair share of these semi-formal meals and I must confess that the one I attended last week, in terms of both quality and company, was far, far better than I have become accustomed to.

More often than not at the political versions of these functions you will have a front bencher of one side or another being drafted in as guest of honour to give an after dinner speech. I’ve sat through many.

Ed Balls, pre-Strictly Come Dancing, was funny and self-deprecating; while another Shadow Cabinet Minister, I don’t recall his name, was completely forgettable. Dennis Skinner was hugely iconic and important, I know that because he spent 25 minutes telling us that was the case. Last week I found myself sitting just across the table from Iain Duncan Smith.

Mr Duncan Smith, or IDS as he is better known, is a politician who evokes emotion. As leader of the Conservative Party over a decade ago he was a man ignominiously dumped from his position before he ever got the chance to fight a general election. As Secretary of State for Work and Pensions he presided over some of the largest changes to benefits and welfare in living memory.

To his supporters IDS is an ideological hero; to his detractors, undoubtedly a major villain of the piece.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect as I listened to the guest of honour at my dinner last week. It is fairly usual at these things to tell a few jokes before you circulate around the room to chat to supporters and pose for photographs. Who needs to worry about speeches when a selfie is often all that is wanted?

But Mr Duncan-Smith was different from any other after dinner speaker I have heard before; you see, after a rambling anecdote or two about Europe – you have to throw some red meat to the crowd after all – it transpired that this former Cabinet Minister still very much has a mission and things to say.

IDS wanted to talk to his audience about the concept of social justice. In a speech that I am sure he has delivered many times Duncan Smith spoke about the time spent working his way through the political ranks and the occasions that he encountered communities blighted by social breakdown and the poverty that it created.

Here was a man who was passionate about eradicating the disadvantages experienced by the very worst-off in society and had spent time establishing a cross-party think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice, to look at underlying causes to remove them rather than economic medicine seeking to do little more than mitigate their effects.

Over the course of time, the Centre for Social Justice has highlighted what they term as five main ‘Pathways to Poverty’: family breakdown; educational failure; worklessness; addiction and serious personal debt.

As a politician unavowedly of the right, Mr Duncan Smith talks of the need to help those reliant on benefits out of welfare dependency, undoubtedly partly through carrot and partly through stick. He talks of safety nets for the most vulnerable while at the same time encouraging those who can work to do so, giving them not only financial independence but also a self-worth which, on its own, government support can never match.

IDS is adamant in his conviction that providing you can work you should never be better off claiming benefits than in gainful employment; he speaks of huge numbers of long-term benefit recipients now working and implicitly points to the successes of the Government’s troubled families agenda.

There is very little doubt that Mr Duncan Smith is a conviction politician who has a long desired aim to effect change. His opponents, it is fair to say, despise him, however. Some see him as hell-bent on reducing the welfare bill; others believe him determined to vilify the weakest in society while others still hold him accountable for the deaths of benefit claimants forced to work.

One Twitter user wrote to me of Duncan Smith ‘He’s a ruthless psychopath…IDS is a disease.’

A couple of years ago now I was working in the classroom of a school in a relatively poor area when I encountered a young boy of 14 or 15 who had little interest in learning but seemed determined to prevent others from doing so. As I tried to engage the young man I asked him what he wanted to do when he left school. His reply has stayed with me ever since: “I’m going to be like my mum and gran, I’m going to go on benefits”.

Frankly, I don’t know if Mr Duncan Smith’s ideological position is correct, I have some sympathy but also reservations. I’m sure that anyone with the zeal to reform from time to time makes mistakes and I am certain that some have been made in respect of a small proportion of the most vulnerable people in our society.

I am equally certain that hope needs to be given to those who are living in second or third generation worklessness – and that that hope doesn’t come simply in the form of a giro cheque.

The reason I mention all of this in today’s column is, I think, important. As I sat listening to Mr Duncan-Smith’s speech I was struck by the passage that possibly he was most passionate about.

As he stood in front of a highly receptive audience IDS made the point that for too long Conservatives had ceded the right to be considered compassionate to the political left. Tories have failed to challenge the idea that only Labour or socialists, or whatever you want to call them, care for the poor. And he’s right.

The longer I have been involved in politics, the more I have come to realise that there are a great many across the political spectrum who care deeply and passionately about making the lives of the worst-off better. I have no doubt whatsoever that Iain Duncan Smith is one of them.

Politics is about ideas. Labour members may advocate for greater state intervention and distribution of wealth; Tories may argue for providing opportunities and expecting individuals to take advantage of them. The ideology varies but the passion to tackle issues is just as strong.

Conservatives have ceded the idea that the right could be considered compassionate for far too long; as, in fairness, many Labour activists would admit that their party has given up the right to be considered economically competent.

All parties should be making the political case for what they believe and not simply painting stereotypical pictures of their opponents.

Leon is a councillor, writer and charity trustee. You can follow him on Twitter @cllrleonspence

Picture: Iain Duncan Smith: A conviction politician with a determination to find a better way to help the poorest.
Photo: PA.

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OTHER NEWS

Pope sets up new commission to study women deacons

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