Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The Left must think the unthinkable

Without some serious economies, Britain will not be able to recover from the downturn
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The Independent Online

Britons wade perilously through the devastating recession towards the next election. How to cut public spending? That is the question to which we need honest answers. Only don't expect them from our elected leaders, busily playing politics even while our land turns hopeless. Instead of sober deliberations over hard choices, we get adolescent baiting and biting between the Tories and Labour.

We need reassurance that the affairs of this state are being managed with competence and much needed foresight. Instead we get cheap gibes and obfuscation, a shying away, as George Osborne says, from the "C" word. The trickery and artifice must make millions of people want to give up altogether.

Public debt and the deficit is growing fast, many billions, even a trillion pounds appear in gloomy forecasts; unemployment has gone up to 7.2 per cent since January and now stands at 2.26m. Remember how the Left reacted when the number of workless reached 2m under Margaret Thatcher? Well comrades it is much worse today. Choices will have to be made that will be agonising for us on the Left, like the extraction of wisdom teeth. But needs must.

Commitment to political beliefs is not like blind faith in religion. (Or shouldn't be though is for too many). Most of us who are lucky enough to live in democracies form our deeply held political values through the years, influenced by family, friends and lovers, charismatic leaders and inspiring thinkers. History and political theory play their part, as do understanding of concepts like justice and equality or wealth creation, and personal identity. Time brings some inevitable changes. Idealism and purity lose their light, for example. A minority walk from left to right and leave behind them dust clouds of umbrage and distress.

I am emphatically not walking that walk – I would rather swallow hemlock than turn into one of those wild converts who chew up their past selves and become growling extremists guarding what they once detested. The challenge facing us progressives today is how to look again at what we thought we had ring-fenced forever, the policies and politics that defined us and were non-negotiable, and to make adjustments so that social democracy survives this period and protects the most vulnerable.

I have been thinking the unthinkable lately. I started doing so after sitting next to Frank Field at a dinner party, a chap who brings chill into a room and propagates many reactionary views I fear and despise. Yet one grave concern he raised that evening made absolute sense: without some serious economies, Britain will not be able to recover from the effects of this downturn. We are stuffed unless we take heed.

The way Field tells it is sure to produce revulsion from some, but what he says is indisputable. Nothing is for ever, and even the most preciously protected public service should be open to scrutiny and change.

Last week came a letter telling us that our daughter, who has turned 16 and is going on to do her A levels, is entitled to a further two years of child benefit. It is sacrilege to say so, but we may need to re-think this weekly allowance, which is wasted on the expanding middle classes. Our children are more likely to stay on in school and therefore profit from the arrangement.

I have always supported this payout, taken up by 99 per cent of the population. The Quaker Eleanor Rathbone, doughty Barbara Castle and Joan Lestor were among the heroic women who pushed for this benefit and made a difference to the lives of countless kids and their mums who get the cash. The benefit is passionately defended by the Left and opposed by right-wing think tanks like Reform.

The Child Poverty Action Group says it reaches more children than tax credit and that if you take it away from the rich, "you run a real risk of taking it away from those who need it most". That seems to be panic-mongering. Means-testing is complicated and humiliates the poor. We can devise a better method. I think to pay out for 18 years to every child is something that can't be sustained nor defended when the children in the bottom 20 per cent have fallen so far behind.

There, one sacred cow slain. Some will say I deserve to go to hell for that. Now another. This week came an encounter which made me a welfare apostate on a state perk I should be entitled to not before long. I was lunching with an old school friend in a restaurant near the Royal Court Theatre, when an attractive, slim, blonde woman interrupted us. She thought I was the Indian TV chef Madhur Jaffrey and said she adored my programmes. Not me, I said, and we got chatting.

She was obviously well-heeled, looked in her late forties but told me she was over 60 and had her bus pass. Why? Because that is her right, as it is for all of us in the middle classes. How many people do you know who refuse to avail themselves of state generosity because they are able to do it for themselves? None in my case. Middle- class welfare and sense of entitlement is an awesome force in our country.

Look at the some of the most recent MPs' expenses and you can see that those who have feel entitled to take what the system permits. And so Denis MacShane claims for a garage he says is a £20,000 office, and Tory Graham Brady for a milk frother. Yes they can, so they do.

Under Labour Britain became more unequal although great and good changes were made to the lot of many children living in poverty. The future looks bleak for progressive politics and redistribution, which makes it even more important that some of the universal benefits we have taken for granted should now be up for a reassessment. The NHS is doing better and should be kept as a service for all regardless of income, but refusing to consider means-testing for child benefit and transport for the retired is perverse and will mean the most needy will suffer more terribly the effects of the coming hard times. That is unacceptable.