Leading article: Left and Right square up for a battle over poverty

Closer targeting of benefits may not be the solution to inequality

Related Topics

Paradoxically, since David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party, it is the political right, rather than the left, that has made the running on questions of social cohesion and reducing poverty. This has had much to do with the work of Iain Duncan Smith, who has found a new mission in life from his work on "Breakdown Britain". And in taking up some of Mr Duncan Smith's ideas, Mr Cameron has had the advantage of not being in government. For the time being – though presumably, they hope, not beyond next summer – the Conservatives have the luxury of being able to explore a range of ideas without being asked why they are not implementing them.

Now, perhaps belatedly, though just in time for the coming election, the left is making an attempt to catch up. But a major forthcoming study, compiled by the Fabian Society and the Webb Memorial Trust, contains some uncomfortable conclusions. They will be uncomfortable for the Government in that they track a striking decline in the sense of social solidarity in Britain, even as their figures show inequality on the increase again. But they should also be uncomfortable for Mr Cameron and his Conservatives in that they call into question some of their most treasured tenets.

Chief among them is the idea that poverty can be reduced by less costly and more closely targeted – i.e. "smarter" – funding. This is not so, it says; experience abroad shows that poverty reduction is in inverse proportion to the narrowness of targeting. Benefits that are widely drawn, it finds, foster a sense of mutual responsibility, which is reduced the more they focus on particular categories of people. It says this is a mistake the Government has made, in an attempt to make the principle of redistribution more acceptable. But it is a mistake the Conservatives could exacerbate if they come in, intent on moving even further in that direction.

Now, of course, this is a study that comes from the political left, and quite a bit to the left, not just of where the Conservatives are now, but of where New Labour was, led by Tony Blair, and now by Gordon Brown. So its critical tone could be dismissed as only to be expected. Yet its broad conclusions ring true, as the effects are increasingly apparent all around us. They are: that inequality has started rising again, after a fall over the past 10 years; that, where poverty reduction is concerned, the public mood is considerably less sympathetic now to redistribution through the tax system, but especially through benefits; and that the next government will have to try something new, if the social state, and in particular the benefits system, are still to enjoy public support.

The authors of the report make clear that they favour something like the Nordic model, which is statist and expensive, but gives more people a stake in public spending. They also recommend a new social contract, under which benefit recipients would be required to do some socially useful work for their money. Whether British voters would accept this, brought up to expect relatively low taxation coupled with a comprehensive social safety net, however, is another matter.

Yet the future the report paints, of a return to "Victorian levels" of inequality and sharp social stratification by area, housing and employment, is a warning that deserves to be taken seriously. And whatever the merits of the case, this contribution from the left means that, at long last, something like an argument can now be had.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform