Leading Article: Hard choices, plain language

Related Topics
"THE PRESS was squared, the middle classes quite prepared." The first proposition may be as true of the Prime Minister's plans to reform welfare as it was for Hilaire Belloc's Lord Lundy. Certainly, the Daily Mail has been enthusiastic, and that really matters to New Labour. But whether the middle classes are "quite prepared" for what may be about to hit them is quite another matter, for Tony Blair's project for welfare reform is something very big indeed. He is right to take the chairmanship of the cabinet committee overseeing it. He was right to go to Dudley on Thursday evening to set out some of the principles on which he will act - notably Labour's plans do not include the removal of a safety net to protect people in real need who cannot help themselves. That may help to reassure a party whose unease about what its leader is up to grew deeper when the Government sleep-walked into an unnecessary conflict over lone parents' benefit. But the Government's Green Paper on welfare reform will have to do a great deal more to convince the party and the wider electorate that Mr Blair has a coherent strategy, and that it really does conform to Labour's traditional values of fairness and compassion. But that will also be the time to confront the public with a rationale for some of the "hard choices" about which he spoke so eloquently in October.

That requires the clear use of language by all the participants in this great debate. When Harriet Harman speaks about an "affluence test" instead of a means test, we should be in no doubt what it means. It means that there is nothing inherently correct, or left wing, in the principle of universal benefits which are paid to all groups in society, including those who don't remotely need them. Once the flight from universality is accepted, several reforms become possible, from taxation of child benefit, to reduced state pensions for the rich. After all, the most spectacular welfare reform so far has nothing to do with single parents. It was the introduction of tuition fees, and it was significant precisely because it ended a scam whereby parents who could afford to pay for their children's tuition got it for free. A new means test is being applied. It does no harm to admit it.

But admitting it does not mean that the middle class will be prepared for radical reforms to, say, the state pension - and the middle class embraces a great many more people than it did 20 years ago. Seen statistically, the middle class number 49 per cent of the electorate, compared to 33 per cent in 1979, or half the electorate. Many middle-class people, especially new members, will believe that paying National Insurance entitles them to the same benefits as everyone else. And those who have been thrifty all their lives will not look kindly at greater benefits going to those whose best qualification for them is that they haven't saved at all. But that is one of the most interesting ideas floating about in Whitehall now - a plan to relate state pensions inversely to earnings. Those who earn more would get less - and would, therefore, feel impelled to save more.

Pensioners exemplify most of the grave dilemmas of welfare reform. The long-term questions of how to go on funding an ageing population should not be confused with a serious problem in the here and now. It is the case that pensioners have, on average, been doing very well. One-third of them now enjoy incomes in the top half of those in the country generally. But it is also true that a disproportionate one in four of the bottom 20 per cent are pensioners. Millions of pensioners, including many widows, are living in a degree of poverty which is inexcusable, a disgrace in a rich and supposedly civilised modern society. They need help now from a Labour government, and they are entitled to expect it. They will not benefit from welfare to work. If the only impact of welfare reform is to save money - even if it is diverted into deserving causes such as education and the NHS - then it will have failed by the standards outlined in the Prime Minister's Dudley speech. But if some of the benefits now paid to those in upper income groups - those people who will fail the "affluence test" - can be redirected to make the lives of the poorest pensioners more enjoyable and dignified, then it would be a potent symbol of the Government's commitment to fairness. There is an old-fashioned word for this, rarely used by the cadres of New Labour, but since we believe that language should be deployed accurately, let us say it. The word is redistribution.

React Now

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

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
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
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit