A message for engineers of change: coercing the poor has never worked

Share
Related Topics
"It is suicidal for the nation to drive the mother to earn money in industry, at the expense of so neglecting the children that they grow up, if they grow up at all, stunted, weak and untrained."

It is 90 years since Beatrice Webb wrote those words. They come from her famous Minority Report to the Royal Commission on the Poor Law, remembered long after the main report has been forgotten. Webb's dissenting verdict did not just draw the outlines of a future Welfare State - a Ministry of Labour, Labour Exchanges, a national health service. She also attacked the spreading social disaster which we now call "exclusion" or "the under- class". But her approach was very different to Tony Blair's.

In the words of her most recent biographer, Carole Seymour-Jones, Beatrice Webb's aim "was nothing less than to cleanse the base of society, to eradicate destitution". Like New Labour, she saw the two-parent family as the foundation of the social order. She also worried about the danger of dependency for single mothers. The old Poor Law encouraged "unfit" mothers to use workhouses and infirmaries as free maternity hospitals. And 95 per cent of outdoor relief was spent on mothers with young children "forced to work" for starvation wages.

Beatrice Webb disapproved of that. She was convinced that the state should accept the duty of supporting single mothers, by methods of what is now called income support. Webb thought that a single mother meant that a bargain sanctified by the community had broken down. Women's duty was to bring up babies, while men's was to bring in money. If that bargain was dishonoured, then the state must take over the man's role and pay to keep mother and children together.

Many of Beatrice Webb's views are now repellent. She was so hostile to working mothers that she considered that their children should be taken into care. She also believed in "improving the race" by eugenics. The Minority Report proposed to stop the under class reproducing. "Unfit" persons, "who are unable or unwilling to come up to the Minimum Standard of Life", were to be segregated, which presumably meant locked away. Sinister terms: all too like the German concept of "lives unfit for life" which led to forced sterilisation and then to the gassing of the mentally ill.

All the same, her ideas prefigured what - in my opinion - was to be one of the triumphs of humane social policy in our own times. This was to make it possible for a single parent, with state support, to live alone with her or his small children and bring them up independently. Beatrice Webb did not want mothers to work at all; dogmatically, she denied what now seems the obvious right of mothers to work if they choose. But she was surely correct to oppose any system - Poor Law or "reformed" Welfare State - which coerces women into employment by using poverty as a weapon. And this is what Labour's benefit cuts are intended to do.

Here is a nasty adage for all engineers of change. If you want to raise the ceiling, it is no answer to dig out the floor. Many years ago, British Airways tried to give business-class passengers the illusion of privilege by cancelling cooked meals for economy class and replacing them with a plastic "doggie-box" of cold scraps. That wheeze soon perished. But the Government's plans for the re-casting of the Welfare State - and some of them are wise and necessary - are making the same mistake. Robbing benefit income from the poorest will not persuade those in work that their living standards are rising. Somebody, somewhere has to be better off in real terms - not just employers offered a fresh supply of unwilling, unskilled female labour.

Why is the Government doing this? As this year ends, we all know that the second half of 1997 was one of the most bewildering episodes in recent British history. Nobody remembers such fits of incandescent joy and self- lacerating collective grief. And yet the grief came from millions who - the day before - had regarded the Princess as a mixed-up victim of her own craving for publicity. And the joy exploded in those who - the day before - had seen New Labour as calculating rascals auctioning their principles for votes. Perhaps it's not surprising that the New Year opens with the public baffled by what their new Government is up to with benefit cuts.

It's comic that a party leadership supposedly obsessed by presentation has been so inarticulate. John Humphrys asks Harriet Harman or Gordon Brown why the benefits of the weakest should be cut, and he is told that giving single mothers the opportunity to work is a leap of liberation. This reminds me of asking a Czech Communist spokesman why censorship was so tight, and being told that the sugar-beet harvest was most promising. Left without any guidance, journalists have fiddled with all sorts of imaginative explanations.

I select two: the "low cunning" one and the "grand ideology" one. The first says that employment is forecast to rise anyway for the next two years. The Government plans to claim credit for this apparent success of welfare-to-work and then, when the recession begins, use its accumulated savings to fund education and health, and possibly - as the next election approaches - cut taxes.

The grand-ideology line, as voiced by critics like Will Hutton, once Tony Blair's guru on stake-holding, is that this is not a Government of the centre-left at all. The Government says that it is - and may well believe that it is. But in fact, this is a regime of the National Right. It is aiming to replace the Tories, permanently, as the One-Nation Party of "order and progress", ruling in the name of the secure majority.

For myself, I simply do not believe this. Interest and principles alike must drive Labour down the centre-left track. As I have argued before, electoral reform and Liberal Democrat support open Tony Blair's way to interminable power: the "centre-left eternity". Policies of the nationalist right will alienate the Lib Dems, split the Labour Party and render unmanageable any conflicts with the more left-wing administrations which will probably rule Scotland and Wales.

As for principles, the thinkers in the leadership, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and a few others - are just not recruitable for the National Right. These are men and women seized in their youth by Socialist principles; they know that Socialism is not on offer in their times, but their loyalty to the weak and defenceless remains somewhere lodged in their gut, whatever their current policies. They are trapped in that pre-election promise (in hindsight, a fatal and unnecessary one) not to raise taxes. But it's a trap they would like to escape.

Perhaps they will. We should be "thinking the unthinkable" about the tax system, not just about the Welfare State. People spend and possess now on a scale which Beatrice Webb could not have imagined, and in ways which no conventional levy on income can reach. And the evidence is that the British are willing to share more generously.

This is still a young, strong government. It's a bit dazed and muddied by its first serious stumble, but its muscles are as hard as ever. Tony Blair set out to make the chance of a decent, self-maintained living standard open to all. Beatrice Webb wanted to "clean up the whole bad business of a class of chronically destitute persons". The Government can still achieve that. But its first step has been calamitous. Coercion of the poor never works. There is still time to learn that lesson.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'