Conservatism of the left - the siren voice that stifles change

David Aaronovitch resisting the blair project

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This is a tale of two friends and a radio broadcast. Let us call first my old chum Otto. Over lunch yesterday, Otto and I reminisced over old times, caught up on mutual old flames - married, pregnant, lesbian and dying - and told each other secrets that we would not dream of telling our spouses. But, most intimate of all perhaps, we talked of our feelings about the Blair government - that great political project of our generation.

Otto was affectionate, but critical. He understood what Tony and Gordon were trying to do, but had found the single parents stuff a bit disturbing. In his experience some single mums would never get jobs. "Nobody will employ them," he told me, "they're totally unmotivated and they can hardly string two words together." If only, he went on, there had been some practical way of distinguishing between those who would work, and those for whom benefit might be as good as it was going to get.

So what about the disabled, I asked him. By way of answer he told me the story of his cousin and his cousin's wife. Eight years ago Otto's aunt had died. Otto's cousin, the oldest son of the family, and the old woman's favourite, had taken it very badly. A middle-ranking executive in the Post Office, married with two daughters of his own, he had become very depressed and couldn't cope. He had a nervous breakdown, left work, and was duly judged to be disabled. An educated man, he had not worked since the age of 39, living on various disability benefits.

But that was not all. Two years later his wife, a nurse, had injured herself while lifting a patient out of the bath. She too was declared to be disabled, and, having been hurt while at work, qualified for an even higher level of payment. So, in this suburban household nobody had worked for a living or paid taxes for more than half a decade. "He should work, he could work," said Otto of his cousin, "but instead he just mopes."

His moping is very expensive. And not just his. Forget for a moment all the earnest stuff about poverty (though, of course, it is real enough). Like Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, nearly all of us in the prosperous middle classes have mad wives hidden somewhere in our attics - family members or friends who live permanently or temporarily on benefits that were not originally designed for them, yet who claim without batting an eyelid. Except in our case it is the artist who gets thousands in housing benefit, plus the dole, but never declares selling a canvas. Or the struggling author. Or the single parent. It is one way in which state money, originally intended to relieve poverty, is haemorrhaging out of the system.

But you wouldn't believe it, were you to listen to the radio or watch the television. In recent days I have been absorbing a great deal of what has been said about the leaked memo to Harriet Harman on possible cuts to disability payments. The tone of virtually every single interview, or reporter's package, has been of undifferentiated, prejudged hostility to the idea of reviewing how disability payments are assessed. A spectacularly one-sided report on Tuesday's edition of Radio 4's PM ended with an old woman campaigner weeping at the very idea that anyone could consider looking at this area of exploding expenditure. Earlier, during a debate on the Today programme, another formidable lady was allowed to assert - unchallenged by the presenter - that only the disabled themselves could decide whether they were fit to work or not, and that the state's role was merely to fork out the cash.

I have seen this attitude before. It is good old-fashioned political conservatism at work, this time of the left. The Guardianocracy, though it laments the lack of resources for health and - most critical of all - for education, resists with outrage any change whatsoever in the way the welfare state (where many of its supporters work) is run. Last week, after my column attacking Labour's welfare rebels, I was rung up by a young woman at the BBC and asked to repeat my views on television that week. They couldn't get anyone else to argue that side of the case, she told me, her voice stiff with disgust.

So to dinner. My other friend, Paul, is a consultant. Recently he has been working, he told me, as a facilitator for those in government, for administrators and for advisers, charged with solving the problems of millennial Britain. He is sent people from different departments and backgrounds who have an interest in a specific project, and his task is to draw potential solutions and strategies out of them.

He had been stupendously successful. By using techniques designed to discourage participants from hiding behind group loyalties and to help them to confront their dilemmas head-on, he is seeing a huge amount of innovative thinking. His teeth flashing and his large hands windmilling, Paul described how, in a day and a bit, intractable problems could begin to be solved. He was taking these leading people in, timid and worried, locked in their unnecessary rivalries, and sending them out agents of radical change.

But what world, I wondered, was he sending them out to? Let us suppose, for a moment, that he had drawn together those responsible for coming up with an answer to the problem of spiralling disability payments. Further suppose that, shorn of their prejudices and prior judgements, they had devised fair methods of better distinguishing between those who might well work again, and those who genuinely could not. What chance, in the current climate, would their solutions have of a fair hearing, and of engendering a proper debate? Judged by the past fortnight, I'd say, sod- all.

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