Leading article: In tackling child poverty, we must first agree what it is

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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE Prime Minister announced this week that he wanted to "end child poverty" within 20 years, the first, instinctive response of most of our readers was probably a cynical one.

The cynic might observe that the trouble with the Five-Year Plans of the Soviet period was always that they were too short: if steel ingot production had failed to rise by 200 tonnes, the time span was short enough for everyone still to remember what the target had been, and the factory manager would be off to the Archipelago. How wise, then, for Anton Blairov to set two decades as the time span in which to fulfil his target. By the time the functionary from Gosplan comes round with a clipboard to check on whether the quota has been filled, the factory manager will be somewhere else.

Equally, the cynic may notice that Mr Blair did not define in his speech the "child poverty" he wanted to abolish. Poverty in modern Britain is essentially relative - witness the familiar complaint that poor people can afford to smoke, own video-recorders and buy lottery tickets - and any attempt to abolish it is therefore doomed to failure.

But let us suspend this cynicism for a moment. Let us accept the Prime Minister's charge that "cynicism and fatalism" are the enemies of progress. Why not set such an ambitious target for the Government? It stands as a symbol of New Labour's values, and it is a very different symbol from that of a 20p basic rate of income tax, which is within twopence of being achieved - by a Labour Government - next year.

And, although Mr Blair did not define his target, he did attack the Conservatives for leaving one-third of children in families on below half of average income. That is an arithmetical measure of inequality; in order to reduce the numbers of families on incomes below that level, the distribution of incomes will have to become more equal. The size of the gap between rich and poor will have to be squeezed. That was a message that did full justice to the setting in which Mr Blair delivered his speech, that temple of British socialism, Toynbee Hall in east London.

Nor is this mere rhetoric, even if it is set against a timetable for which Mr Blair himself is unlikely to be held personally accountable. Many of Mr Blair's critics on the left accuse him of cherry-picking the feel-good language of social justice while shying away from the radical policies needed to ensure that power, wealth and opportunity end up in the hands of the many, not the few, in the words of New Labour's constitution. But the impact of Gordon Brown's three budgets so far has been to shift the tax and benefit system in precisely this egalitarian direction, and with hardly a squeak from the pips. After 20 more budgets like that, who is to say that child poverty, as defined, cannot be abolished?

So it would be a mistake to dismiss Mr Blair's ambitions as just sound- balm for the ears of the well-meaning electorate. The question is how the "quiet revolution" of which he spoke will be brought about.

And here we come to a less convincing part of Mr Blair's speech, in which he set out his desire to make "the welfare state" popular again. As he pointed out, welfare has become a term of abuse. "It became associated with fraud, abuse, laziness, a dependency culture." And, as he pointed out, this is dangerous, because "if people lose faith in welfare's ability to deliver, then politicians have an impossible job persuading hard-pressed taxpayers that their money should go on a system that is not working".

Let us recall, however, that it was the New Labour import of New Democrat language from America that reinforced the use of welfare in this negative sense, as in the mantra "welfare to work".

Mr Blair's attempt to invoke the folk-memory of the saintly William Beveridge, architect of "the welfare state" when it was popular, is similarly unconvincing. The point about the Beveridge reforms is that they applied the social values forged in war to the problems of the Thirties. The idea of cradle- to-grave state support, backed up by universal state benefits, is unsupported and insupportable now. Both the values and the problems are different.

Mr Blair should drop the notion of restoring some kind of golden age of the welfare state and stick to convincing the cynics that ending child poverty - in new ways - is a realisable goal.