'Greater equality' to benefit the poor

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Tony Blair moved yesterday to try to meet one of the main complaints of his critics in the Labour Party - that he is ignoring the poor - as he sought to justify new disciplinary measures for Labour MPs.

"I believe in greater equality. If the next Labour government has not raised the living standards of the poorest by the end of its time in office, it will have failed," he wrote in the Independent on Sunday. This is a significant move in the direction advocated by the party's former deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, one of Mr Blair's sternest critics.

The Government has only recently been forced to admit official figures show the poorest tenth of society are worse off in real terms after 17 years in which wealth was supposed to "trickle down" to them.

But Mr Blair continued to challenge Labour's left wing by saying that raising the level of state benefits would not help the poor.

"It is not a few pounds more benefit the poor need, but a job, skill or opportunity."

He set this new, specific test for a Labour government while appealing to the left of his own party: "Have faith. That is my message to critics on the left." He added that the five early pledges in the New Life for Britain manifesto, which will go to a ballot of all party members after this autumn's conference, were not "the limits of what we have to offer".

The pledges "may be dismissed in some quarters as tokens, but they would produce genuine benefit to ordinary people: reduce class sizes, abolish the internal market in the NHS to cut waiting times, 250,000 young people off the dole, fast-track punishment to persistent young offenders, economic stability to protect family incomes".

He added: "In each area of policy, there is a clear distinction between Tory and Labour, but for once on territory that is popular and of our choosing."