Politics: Reforms promise rerun of Clause 4 battle

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The Independent Online
It was an odd reception on a January night in Dudley for a party leader come to sell his welfare reforms. Fran Abrams was there to hear Tony Blair.

A few discreet posters popped up among the crowd of 50 or so well-dressed punters as Mr Blair's limo pulled up in front of Dudley town hall. A couple of polite voices piped: "Save British beef."

Round the back, though, well out of the prime ministerial sight line, a proper melee was raging, complete with Socialist Workers' posters.

"Blair says cut back, we say fight back!" they yelled, having fun. Inside the hall, though, the reception from 600 party members was warm and polite.

Mr Blair's speech promised a modernising agenda like the one which reformed the Labour Party and Clause 4 but he said he would remain true to his principles. Invoking the names of Attlee and Beveridge, founders of the Welfare State, he said he did not believe they would have approved of the current system.

Under the Conservatives Britain had become two nations, one trapped on benefits and the other paying for them. Benefit fraud cost pounds 4bn a year, he said, while the pounds 100bn cost of welfare was more than the bill for health, education, law and order and employment together.

"No one with a shred of compassion would say we should not protect the vulnerable. But no one with a degree of commonsense would say the present system should remain untouched," he said.

The state pension would remain "the foundation for security in retirement" while those who could not work through illness, disability or caring responsibilities would be protected. But work was the best route out of poverty for those who could work, and individuals should provide for themselves when they could do so.

There would be a national debate and full consultation, but party members should not believe scare stories and "endless wild speculation".

Pension reform could take many years to come into effect, while other changes could take several.

"Labour built the Welfare State. New Labour will rebuild it. It was one of the great civilising achievements of the 20th century. It was a statement that Britain would not tolerate sickness without care, poverty without hope and support or the indignity of relying on charity when out of a job."

Despite recent anger in the Labour Party over cuts in benefits to lone mothers and suggestions that disability benefits could be taxed or means tested, little showed through here. Most questions began with a "Good evening, Tony," or a "Good evening, Prime Minister, doesn't that have a nice ring to it?"

Six hundred local members had been invited but few seemed inclined to be anything more than politely critical.

There was criticism though, over low teacher morale, education budgets and disability benefits. Mr Blair responded that the Government was in its "post-euphoria, pre-deliverance" stage. "I tell you it will be done," he said.

And were they convinced? From the applause at the end, it seemed most were. As Mr Blair suggested, this debate could be Clause 4 all over again.