Leading article: Blair's litmus test as leader

Share
Related Topics
Tony Blair passed an exacting test of his political skill this year; 1998 will be a harsh test of his political character. After eight months in office, it is a case of so far, so good, but there is no disguising the perils ahead in 1998. First among these is the economy. Unlike previous Labour leaders, Mr Blair inherited an economy that was fundamentally sound. But the trade cycle ensures that the ripe fruits of recovery will not last. Gordon Brown has been spared the consumer boom that appeared to threaten his policy at the time of his summer Budget, and his determination to contain public spending means that Labour has not repeated its fatal and historic error of spending itself deep into the red.

But not even an iron chancellor can manage a soft landing for the economy if the collapse of the East Asian economies is the start of a severe deflation around the world. The greatest single danger in 1998 could be a rapid increase in unemployment, which undermines his laudable supply-side measures that are designed to take jobless men and women off the dole queues and back into work. This government is better equipped to deal with a potential recession than the Conservatives were, but a serious deflation, accompanied by rising unemployment will expose acute internal strains: Mr Blair will find out who his real friends are. That alone will provide a severe test of character.

A second peril in the coming year is the Prime Minister's intention to press on with welfare reform in his first term. We think this is both courageous and correct. Some of the Government's critics still cling to the notion that a huge and growing social security budget is a symbol of a compassionate society rather than of economic failure and wasted human potential. Every benefit distributed to those who don't need it imposes greater pressures on the provision of the benefits due to those who do. The Government is right to take a hard look at benefits - such as disability benefits - which have grown at a rate apparently unconnected with the social ill they were intended to deal with. This is not, repeat not, an attack on the genuinely disabled and the really ill, but it does mean that Labour will have to rethink its old taboo on the means test, rather as it rethought Clause IV. It is true, of course, that if they are misapplied, means-tested benefits can provide a disincentive to work, particularly for younger people. But this is a practical problem which ought to be overcome by closer integration of the tax and benefits systems. The fact is that many benefits, including some disability benefits and child benefit, go to families that do not need them at all, and it seems to us to be an odd sort of socialism which assumes that poor people should pay out of their taxes for benefits for the rich. The opposition to Mr Blair will come from the benches behind him rather than those opposite, and dealing with it promises to test the Prime Minister's mettle again. The Government will need to exhibit much more care than it did over the cut in lone parents benefit - which fell mainly on the poor, and created for those already receiving the benefit, a disincentive to work that totally contradicted the original intention of the measure. The proper lesson from the deep pain inflicted on the party by the lone parents benefit row is certainly not to abandon welfare reform, but to make sure that it is properly considered and clearly explained in advance.

It's true that the Prime Minister sometimes forgets that, while the party needed him to win for them, he needed the party as the vehicle which brought him to power. His triumph in the Clause IV campaign was to persuade the party to accept the argument, not just as a means of getting elected, but because it was right. Irksome as it is for a man who has many other preoccupations, he needs to do the same in relation to our imperfect welfare system. And in persuading the party, he will help to persuade the country. Welfare cannot be reformed by stealth. Mr Blair must persuade his party and the electorate why it is entirely compatible with genuine help for the poorest and most needy to curb the benefit bill for the prosperous and able-bodied. It is not an exaggeration to argue that it is the historic duty of the left to modernise the welfare state, because, as its architect, the left can be trusted to do so in a way the right could not. We wish Mr Blair luck in this prodigious task. He will need it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative / Forklift Driver

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Through a combination of excell...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are looking for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Service Plan Champion

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a Service Plan Champi...

Recruitment Genius: Service Plan Champion

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a Service Plan Champi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the Labour leadership election hasn’t yet got to grips with why the party lost

John Rentoul
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific