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Class War on the poor

Pete Smith explains how New Labour attacks the poor and the powerless whilst making friend with the rich and the powerful.

In the run-up to Christmas the government was intending to spend an estimated 250,000 on an advertising campaign to persuade us not to give money to beggars, vagrants, homeless people, rough sleepers etc. O tidings of comfort and joy! The government's argument seems to be that such charity only encourages dependence, prevents people sorting their lives out and the money is most likely to be spent on alcohol and drugs anyway.

Obviously the Good Samaritan should have waited for the representatives of Social Services to turn up and the money he provided was probably spent on the first century equivalent of Special Brew anyway. Blair professes to be a Christian, and indeed is a regular church attender. Well may I be so bold as to give him a little Bible study lesson. In the Gospel of St Matthew, Jesus gives an account of Judgment Day: he describes the separation of the saved from the damned and what he says to the saved is very interesting. "For I was hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger and you took me in. Naked and you clothed me: I was sick and you visited me: I was in prison and you came unto me."

At this point, the righteous express healthy scepticism and explain that they had never seen Jesus hungry and fed him or naked and clothed him or found him a stranger and took him in. The answer from Jesus is a simple one, "In as much as you have done it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it unto me." There is no theological test here, it is not about what you believe but about what you do and your duty to the poor and disadvantaged is paramount. We can see similar themes in the Prophets of the Old Testament.

This message of responsibility towards the poor in Christianity and Judaism is a key part of other religions as well. One of the five pillars of Islam is to give alms to the poor, and one of the purposes of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is to remind people that some people fast not just through one month of the year but through every month because they have no choice. Sikhism has similar principles, hence the feeding of all at the temple. One only has to cast an eye over the writings of the Dalai Lama to see that concern for others, on a moral level, must be personal as well as social.

OK theology lesson over. Where does this leave us in practical terms? I always give money to beggars and the homeless (if I have any) because I will not turn my back on them. I am not going to say that it is someone else's problem and nothing to do with me. They may spend it on Thunderbird or heroin but if I was in their situation I might do the same. The sheer smugness of the government is often beyond belief. Removed from the realities of the people at the sharp end. Talk to the people who do Crisis at Christmas and you get a more realistic picture than the pinched faces and facile arguments that Blair and his co-conspirators against the marginalised can possibly provide.

This particular Christmas present to the poor is entirely consistent with the 'New' Labour approach since it came to office. In 1997, the Christmas gift to the poor was a cut in lone parent benefit and the stigmatising of single parents as ministers seemed to come up with a re-tread of the Conservative 'Back to Basics' campaign. Women, some of them with little education or training, were somehow to be miraculously spirited into jobs which paid enough to cover their child care costs. Of course the real outcome was to be that most of these women would remain outside the labour market but on lower benefits.

In between that event and the recent farrago over rough sleepers we have seen other assaults on some of the most vulnerable members of society. Means testing of living allowances to the disabled was a particularly nasty idea which would only save peanuts, in terms of public spending, anyway. In fact in forcing some disabled people out their own homes and into institutional care it may end up costing more.

We have also seen the government's offensive against asylum seekers. The 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act, amongst other things, reduced the opportunities for appeal, replaced cash payments with food vouchers from which no change can be given (a real gift for the supermarkets) and the dispersal of asylum seekers around the country, sometimes to areas where they face verbal and physical abuse.

Worse than these legal measures, however, is the propaganda war waged by ministers against asylum seekers, particularly in the widespread use of the term 'bogus'. Ministers from a party which produced the British Nationality Act in 1948, a liberal immigration measure, have found themselves competing with the Tories and even the ultra-right to make critical comments about people fleeing persecution, torture and war. The increase in asylum applications is (to some degree) the price we are paying for the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism and the instability and conflict that this has brought to large sections of the globe. From 1989 onwards it was obvious that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakdown of the old political, economic and social structures in the East would bring people West; there was no way around that. In fact Germany has received far more asylum applications than Britain.

People who have been uprooted by the turbulence of the last ten years, people, often torn from home and family and forced to exist in an alien environment, whose language and culture are strange to them, find themselves being used as political footballs by both major parties. Philip Gould's focus groups find that asylum seekers are unpopular with many people; this is then translated into hostile speeches by ministers which, in turn, translate into articles in the tabloid press which influence public opinion. A vicious cycle which ministers make no attempt to break.

What we have seen, only too clearly, is that 'New' Labour targets the weak, the powerless, the poor, the voiceless and the marginalised. What we do not see is any significant action against the powerful and the wealthy. On the contrary, the Labour Conference becomes a lovefest between 'New' Labour in power and corporate Britain. The government seems obsessed with just the same neo-liberal agenda of privatisation and the belief that the inequalities in society are not only justifiable but actually desirable. The government is like a playground bully who only attacks the people who cannot fight back.

Tony Blair recently declared the 'class war' to be over. Of course the class war will only be over when the rich and powerful stop waging it on ordinary people, including those who are worst off to start with.