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

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"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.

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