Leading Article: In search of the Labour Party

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The Independent Online
WHEN Neil Kinnock was the Labour Party's leader, the virtues of his Shadow Chancellor, John Smith, seemed clear. Where Mr Kinnock was prolix and imprecise, Mr Smith was crisp, clear and master of his brief. Where Mr Kinnock tacked from side to side on important issues, Mr Smith was consistently on the party's moderate right wing. Now that Mr Smith is in charge, his virtues seem less clear. At least Mr Kinnock knew what he wanted and made sure he got it, it is now said, and was relentless in bullying the party into electability. By contrast, Mr Smith believes in debate, discussion and then decision. His is, like John Major's, a more collegiate style, which can give the impression of weakness.

Among the myriad studies that Mr Smith has put in hand, the Commission on Social Justice, being launched today, is the most important. Its subtitle might be 'What is Labour for nowadays?' Headed by Sir Gordon Borrie, the former Director-General of Fair Trading, the commission will examine income and wealth distribution, welfare benefits and taxation. Its scope is expected to include the so-called middle-class welfare state, embracing mortgage and pension tax relief. Although Labour will not be bound by its recommendations, the party's reputation will clearly suffer if they look intelligent and politically viable, yet are rejected.

If, as expected by Labour's social security spokesman, Donald Dewar, the Borrie commission focuses public attention on 'the underclass, the needy, the educationally deprived, those on low pay and those housed inadequately', that will be not without risk. There is much logic in Labour defining itself as a crusading party that wants to fight poverty and disadvantage. But such altruism may not do it much good with an electorate of which a permanent majority feels neither poor nor particularly disadvantaged.

The only way that circle can be squared is by making those with, or aspiring to, a stake in society realise that it may be in their interests to see some of these potentially threatening issues properly addressed - even if it involves a reduction in their disposable income. That would mean shifting attention from the quality of public services to the impact on society of such ills as unemployment, crime and homelessness; and, given the lessons of the last election, from direct taxation to subtler forms of revenue-raising, such as green taxes or user charges like road tolls.

In the post-war era Labour showed considerable skill in mobilising support for those it saw as the deserving poor. The difficulty now - and it is exacerbated by pressures for political correctness - is to differentiate between those who will clearly benefit from a leg-up, and those whom much of the public tends to regard as feckless or even dishonest.

Assessing relative wealth has not been one of the party's strengths. Campaigning for the Democrats, President-elect Bill Clinton advocated raising taxes for those earning more than dollars 210,000 ( pounds 134,000) a year. Mr Smith's equivalent in this spring's election campaign was pounds 21,000. As for the sacred cow of child benefits and pensions for all, the Borrie commission will have failed if it does not rigorously question its raison d'etre: the idea that virtually all pensioners are relatively badly off has long been obsolete. It is not least by its readiness to accept fresh ideas that Mr Smith's Labour Party will be judged.