Leading Article: How do we fund pensions, then?

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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY'S SPEECHES by Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown made some of the right noises about welfare and the economy. No-one doubts the need for economic stability, or that our benefits system fails to deliver help to those most in need. But both men were shy about outlining actual policies. It is a great pity that Labour Conferences now seem to be devoid of detailed debates, since the meat of actual policy arguments would make for a much more exciting, vigorous and successful Conference. The issues abound for Labour to address. As the world teeters on the brink of recession, it would be better to hear Mr Brown's views on managing the economy, than yet another set of warnings issued to the trade unions and the Left. What does he think about world interest rates? Debt relief? Reform of the world economic superstructure?

The public is not so naive as to believe that there are no differences in the party over policy. The fringe is full of ideas and contesting beliefs, from pensions to transport policy. Why does John Prescott talk about proportional representation rather than the shape of his stalled integrated transport policy? It is obvious that commuters, or parents anxious that their children are choking on car exhaust fumes, are concerned about the latter rather than about the detail of Labour's co-operation with the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Darling also has a series of real policy decisions to make. Does the Labour Party approve of contributory pensions? If so, will there be top- up contributions demanded from those on lower incomes? Are rates of personal taxation inviolable in principle, or could they change as part of a overhaul of incentives?

All these questions add up to one dilemma: does Labour cherish "enterprise", or public provision? The conference Labour is not having would thrash out an answer. Alone under the party's new rules, ministers can, and should, make those debates a reality.

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