Labour plays down gaffe by Meacher

Damage limitation on Jobseekers' Allowance
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The Independent Online
Labour yesterday launched a damage-limitation exercise over an article signed by Michael Meacher, the employment spokesman, unilaterally committing the party to abolishing the new Jobseekers' Allowance.

The article, in the left-wing Red Pepper magazine, went considerably further than party policy by promising the allowance, which replaces unemployment benefit from October, would be scrapped. Ian Willmore, Mr Meacher's researcher, said he wrote the article and submitted it without showing the reference to abolition to Mr Meacher. "It was my fault and it was wrong."

The allowance, which would reduce the unemployment-benefit period from 12 months to six and introduce stringent conditions to establish recipients are eligible to take paid work, was opposed by Labour when it went through the Commons.

But it is a sensitive issue for the party, since replacement would cost a Labour government pounds 240m from 1997. Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, has been resisting efforts by the social-security team, led by Chris Smith, to establish a Labour commitment to extend the period for 12 months.

Mr Meacher's embarrassment was compounded by the fact that he had already upset the leadership by making a speech in Stockholm last week predicting mass job losses as a result of a single currency, which Labour still supports "in principle". Attempts to stop him making the speech were aborted when it was discovered he had already given the text to the Press Association.

Party leaders, while expressing annoyance that Mr Meacher had let the article go into the magazine, last night accepted Mr Willmore's explanation.

But Hilary Wainwright, the magazine editor, stood by the piece, which she had billed a "rare pledge to reverse a major piece of Tory legislation".

She said she had approached Mr Meacher to write the article and had discussed with him at that stage "the outline of the article as it appeared". Sources at the magazine also said that after receiving the article she asked Mr Willmore whether Mr Meacher had made the commitment before.

Earlier, Labour party managers breathed a sigh of relief when the two- day National Policy forum in Manchester ended without any big rows. After the tension of the past two weeks, leaders had been braced for a backlash, particularly against the plan by Mr Brown to "review" child benefit for 16-to-18-year-olds.

One delegate to the forum said: "There was a feeling that the whole thing had been badly mishandled and didn't need to have caused the trouble it had." But the principle of the review was approved.

But a trade-union source said: "We are waiting until we see the overall shape of the whole package." Mr Brown addressed forum delegates yesterday and answered questions but appeared to reassure most of 100 Labour representatives there that his child-benefit review had originally been sold to newspapers as an example of a "tough" decision about welfare spending.

Yesterday he stressed the need to switch resources from 16-18-year- olds in private education to the less well-off. He drew attention to the fact that the families of those who leave school at 16 did not get child benefit and those in families on income support had it deducted from their benefit.

If Labour win the election,Tony Blair is expected to form an "inner cabinet" of John Prescott, Mr Brown, Robin Cook and probably Donald Dewar, responsible for ensuring the Government meets goals it sets for a first term. Publication of the plan also suggests Mr Blair wants to reassure his three most senior shadow-cabinet members of their joint importance in a future administration after tension in their ranks had been exposed.