Labour's mission is power, not the poor

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For once The Independent and The Daily Telegraph were in complete agreement. Equality, both editorials insisted, is out of date. Redistribution through the tax system is an idea whose time has gone. Those of us who want to take from the rich to give to the poor are "trying to create a better yesterday".

That tired old cliche is worth close examination. For a "modern" approach to welfare has practical effects which the critics of "outdated" egalitarianism rarely discuss. During my last couple of months as Member of Parliament for an inner-city constituency, two victims of the fashionable approach to welfare came into my surgery.

One was a single mother - not the miniskirted, alcopop-drinking teenager of tabloid mythology, but a woman in her late thirties whose husband had disappeared after the birth of their second daughter. For 10 years she had rented a privately owned, furnished hovel. After much persuasion the council accepted that she had "housing need" and offered tenancy of a council flat. The family could not move because they owned no furniture and the Social Fund - introduced as an alternative to the welfare-dependence of discretionary grants - would not pay the cost of beds and bedding. The idea that the community should have helped that woman is not intrinsically old-fashioned. Yet, as I discovered last week, the Government has no plan to replace the Social Fund with a system of grants that guarantee help for families in desperate need.

The second victim, a 45-year-old man, was typical of the long-term unemployed who, by their nature, often live in families with multiple disadvantage. Because of chronic heart disease he had not worked since 1980, and his wife was receiving medical treatment for "endogenous" depression. Her despair may well have been exogenous. The whole family - mother, father and two teenage daughters - were expected to live on little more than pounds 500 a month after rent and council tax had been paid. There was no food in the house on the day before they cashed their weekly Giro cheque. No one has yet explained why lifting that family out of poverty is yesterday's obligation.

To quote such examples in the brittle world of New Labour is to risk the accusation of sentimentality - or, even worse, nostalgia for the world as it existed before the summer of 1994. The complaint against those who want everything to be "new" is far more serious. There is no way of helping the woman who still lives in a hovel except by putting more money into her hand. A "personal adviser" is not going to buy her furniture. And the man with chronic angina is not going to benefit from a complicated retraining scheme. He, too, needs money to spend. In the short and medium term, it can be provided only from increased taxes on high incomes. The decision to hold down the standard rate to its pre-election level was not a discrete choice. By deciding to accept the taxation levels inherited from its Tory predecessors, the Government was condemning the very poor to remain in poverty.

Thanks to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, we know that the two nations that make up Great Britain are more divided now than at any time since 1886. The richest 10 per cent of the population earn as much as the poorest 50 per cent. And while top people's earnings and dividends have grown at an unprecedented rate, the poor have enjoyed, at best, only a fractional increase in their income. In fact, as the IFS confirmed yesterday, when (as is normal statistical practice) housing costs are added to the calculation, the poorest 10 per cent are worse off in real, as well as relative, terms than they were 10 years ago. For them, redistribution would provide a better today.

Yet the Labour Party continues to insist that it has an up-to-date alternative which solves the poverty problem - and talks about it as if its fundamental solution ("attacking the causes", as Gordon Brown said on Monday) were incompatible with providing immediate help for the families who need help most. Certainly, a reduction in unemployment - like the introduction of an adequate minimum wage - is an essential long-term strategy for reducing inequalities. As the post-war Rowntree/Laver survey confirmed, the Attlee government, by virtually eradicating unemployment, lifted almost every family above the poverty line and prepared the way for the Fifties society in which "We never had it so good". It would be foolish to dismiss Gordon Brown's prescription because it is not new. That is the refuge of the weak-minded. But there is no reason why the causes cannot be attacked and the symptoms alleviated at the same time. No one has attempted to explain why suffering today is necessary to achieve success tomorrow.

When clever men and women give inadequate explanations for their conduct - or choose to give no explanation at all - doubts arise about their real motives. Yesterday morning on television, the Prime Minister provided an essential clue to the reasons for the Government's conduct. Those of us who call for greater equality and redistributive tax policies had, he said, been in charge of the Labour Party during the 20 years when it was out of office. That is undoubtedly true - though it remains to be proved that Labour lost any or all of the four general elections because of its desire to help the poor. But the subtext of what he said was clear enough. Redistribution loses votes. The Labour Party has not discovered a new, improved and exclusive method of reducing poverty. It has evolved a more successful way of gaining power.

I do not minimise the importance of winning office. Between 1979 and 1997, the Labour Party did nothing to alleviate poverty because the Conservatives were in government. But I do not believe the loose talk that suggests redistribution is impossible because it is unacceptable to the electorate. What the electorate accepts is certainly influenced - perhaps even determined - by the mood set by a crusading government. Tony Blair could convince this country that a little redistribution - a gentle increase in taxes and a modest increase in benefits - is morally necessary. It would require some hard-headed collateral policies: a vigorous attack on welfare scroungers and carefully targeted welfare payments. That could, in itself, antagonise some target voters. The Government might have to tax child benefit and use the money, clawed back from more prosperous parents, to increase assistance to the unemployed and low paid. But it could be done.

On Monday night, BBC television's 9pm news - the main bulletin of the day - did not even mention the IFS report on the growing gap between rich and poor. It would have led the broadcast if the Prime Minister had made a statement that described the institute's analysis as a condemnation of the social structure of our society. Politicians are supposed to lead opinion. Britain is in desperate need of a party that speaks for the poor.