A defining cause for the Labour Party

There's no point dodging the truth: redistribution will require more money and higher taxes
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The Independent Online

There's a chunk of the British middle class that lives in a warm, comforting bath called "meritocracy". They believe that Britain is already a Land of Hope and Opportunity, where the rich get ahead by working hard and the poor fall behind because ... well ... nobody likes to say it, but they don't work hard, do they? Wherever this British bourgeoisie gathers, there is a mood of quiet triumphalism. I earned my Mercedes; they earned their Burberry hats and their scuzzy flats. And when - just occasionally - this belief is shaken, they reach for the soap. They scrub themselves down with the argument that nobody in Britain is really poor. They've all got fridges and jaunts to Ibiza and PlayStations, haven't they?

There's a chunk of the British middle class that lives in a warm, comforting bath called "meritocracy". They believe that Britain is already a Land of Hope and Opportunity, where the rich get ahead by working hard and the poor fall behind because ... well ... nobody likes to say it, but they don't work hard, do they? Wherever this British bourgeoisie gathers, there is a mood of quiet triumphalism. I earned my Mercedes; they earned their Burberry hats and their scuzzy flats. And when - just occasionally - this belief is shaken, they reach for the soap. They scrub themselves down with the argument that nobody in Britain is really poor. They've all got fridges and jaunts to Ibiza and PlayStations, haven't they?

The plug can be pulled on this fantasy by a simple, hard fact. Today, End Child Poverty - a coalition of children's charities including Barnardo's, the NSPCC and Save the Children - issues a report filled with startling figures, but one of them, in particular, drains all this middle-class self-congratulation away in a second.

Most people know that low-weight babies are less likely to have a high IQ, less likely to live long, healthy lives, and less likely to succeed in life. But how many people know that, in Britain today, women in social class 5 - the women of the council estates - are 60 per cent more likely to have a low-weight baby than their (distant) cousins in social class 1?

So even as they develop in the womb, the life-chances of the British poor get whittled down, because their skint mothers suffer worse nutrition, weaker public services and greater stress. From conception onwards, a thick middle-class kid is advantaged over a smart-but-poor child. The idea that Britain is already a meritocracy - that you earned your place and the street-sweeper earned his - is a bad joke.

In the fourth richest country in the world, it doesn't have to be like this. It's easy to sink into nihilistic despair and complain that "the poor are always with us" - the incessant moan of reactionaries in every generation. In fact, poverty has been eroded many times, many ways.

There's no mystery and we don't need any magic. The best remedy for poverty is twofold: a dynamic market economy that generates wealth, and a strong state that redistributes that wealth to the poorest. It's called social democracy, and it works. Under the much-reviled Harold Wilson, the poorest tenth of Brits saw their real income rise by 29 per cent, while the rest of the country grew by just 16 per cent. It was effective: only 8.2 per cent of Brits were in poverty in 1979, the lowest level since records began.

Under the Conservatives, the market economy continued but state redistribution was battered and broken. The result was simple: contrary to Thatcherite myth, the chances of a child from a poor family making it into the highest income bracket fell by 40 per cent. For the first time in the 20th century, Britain's agonisingly slow progress towards meritocracy went into reverse.

But the underlying truth remains: we can end child poverty if we want to by redistributing wealth. This country has enjoyed a decade of soaring economic growth, at the top of the world's tables of riches. If we don't end child poverty when the sun is shining, when will we ever do it?

First, however, we need to understand quite how bad the problem is. The poor look so similar to the wealthy - they no longer wear rags or (very often) beg in the streets - that even many well-intentioned people doubt they exist. Yet in Britain today, half of all kids from low-income families cannot afford to go on school trips. Worse, the Citizens' Advice Bureau found last year that 30 per cent of poor children have been sent away from school or turned away from the classroom because their parents couldn't afford the correct uniform. Every week, I see my nephews playing with kids who haven't been on holiday in years, or with children who live in homes that don't have carpets fitted, so they toddle about instead on concrete floors. If you can't properly clothe your kids or send them for a day out, if you can't even afford a carpet, then I'd say it's fair to call you poor.

And this isn't a matter - as the Tories and the right-wing press would have you believe - of lazy parents refusing to work. Half of all poor kids today have a parent going out to work, and they're still poor.

If, like me, you sometimes experience a gloomy fear that Britain will always be this way, then today's report by End Child Poverty is an essential dose of Prozac. It's a practical, carefully researched blueprint for a Britain with no poor children - and it shows how we have been silently, slowly progressing towards this goal for the past five years. No airy rhetoric; no wild aspirations; just facts - and 10 ways to achieve the Government's goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020

Last year, the Government hit its quarter-way target for achieving its 2020 vision. The proportion of poor children is down from 34 per cent to 28 per cent, with more than a million children pushed over the poverty line. It's been achieved by tax credits that top-up the wages of low-income parents. It's a smart tactic, because it redistributes wealth without creating the classic problem of the welfare state: a "benefit trap" that discourages work.

But the poverty experts agree: this first step has been the easiest. The Government has so far reached the million children who were hovering close to the poverty line. But if they are to continue meeting the incredibly ambitious target of lifting up all kids - the ones who play with my nephews included - they need to burrow far deeper. And there's no point dodging the truth: it will require more money - and higher taxes. Redistribution cannot be done on the cheap, and it can't be done for much longer on the quiet.

Most of the measures recommended by End Child Poverty are simple - like extending child benefit to pregnant women. At the moment, a pregnant 20-year-old on benefits has just £6 a day to survive. She can't afford the food and vitamin supplements that middle-class parents take for granted - and her child suffers. Only a cascade of dozens of poverty-busting initiatives like this will - in combination - pull up enough children to make child poverty in this country history.

This should be a defining purpose for this government, a cause as great as the Attlee government's creation of the NHS. It showcases the best and the worst of a social democratic approach to politics. It is frustratingly slow and, at times, dry and technical - but, if it is fought for, it works.

As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski explained: "The trouble with the social democratic ideal is that it does not stock and does not sell any of the exciting commodities which various totalitarian movements - communist, fascist, or leftist - offer dream-hungry youth ... It has no prescription for the total salvation of mankind. It is, instead, an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy."

Now there's an opening - and an agenda - for a real Labour manifesto.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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