Leading Article: Instincts at war: contempt for the poor and pity at their plight

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The politics are simple. The huge numbers, the jargon, the unfashionable subject-matter and (not least) the obfuscation of ministers give the impression that the disability benefits row is very complicated. In essence, it isn't.

The political dynamic can be seen on the streets of almost any major city. There are people begging. You pass. You have money. You feel irritation: you are a gritty person, a coper, a worker. Why should you give money to this idler, this sturdy beggar? Why don't they try harder? But you also feel something else; pity and unease. You feel ''what-if-it-was-me?'' and you feel suddenly superstitious about your own better fortune. These two basic social instincts are at war. So you give. Or you don't give.

That's what's going on. State welfarism veils the dilemma, hiding it behind the relative anonymity of mass provision, the complexities of different payments and the blatherings of politicians. But there are very simple warring urges at play.

Labour needs the money from squeezing the welfare budget (or at the very least, to stop the increase). That means looking at disability payments, which have risen 200 per cent since 1978/9 in real terms and comprise about a quarter of the total welfare budget. Labour knows voters elected it to improve schools and hospitals without raising taxes. Now it has to find the money from somewhere. Not-very-disabled-people, it has decided, are one group which will lose.

This might translate into effective rhetoric if it came from a right- wing party. The Social Security Secretary would be on the radio talking about scroungers and layabouts, whipping up populist outrage and generally playing to that human instinct which passes the beggar with a shiver of irritation. It would be nasty and effective. Right-wing parties do this sort of thing all the time.

Harriet Harman doesn't use that language. She can't. Hers is not a right- wing populist party. It was founded to speak for that other instinct, the sense of pity, the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God instinct. On top of that, Labour has encouraged and embraced the language of rights and citizenship. Disabled people don't want to be pitied. They follow where blacks, women and gays led, demanding their share of the social sunlight. They have articulate, angry and effective spokespeople. They are prepared to use direct action.

How can a party created partly from a sense of compassion, and now very close to the ''rights culture'', invoke words such as shirker and sponger to reach the voters and impress the Press? It just can't. This means that Tony Blair and Harriet Harman are engaging in a crusade to cut benefits without the moralising, populist language that would normally go with it. No wonder they sound abstract, oddly passionless and wooden-tongued on the issue.

So what is to be done? The state cannot and should not compensate for all the misfortunes and difficulties of life. Over time, responsibility for paying people who are injured or become sick at work should pass from the state to employers, and thus, in effect, the insurance companies. That might save some pounds 700m eventually. But it doesn't really answer the hard questions.

The only way ahead is to spend more, in the short term, on better inspection procedures, and to ensure that money is spent only on those who really need it. Cutting into the ''middle-class welfare state'' is absolutely consonant with the New Labour programme. Many better-off people will lose, and howl. But the balancing quid pro quo is that disability benefit would not be cut, but raised, for those who are really incapacitated. There needs to be, in other words, a sharper cut-off between citizens recognised as seriously disabled and needy, and those who are not.

At the same time, much more should be done about getting disabled people into work, using the stick not simply on individuals but on companies. This may lead to a national quota system, enforceable by law. We are not much in favour of new regulations and bureaucracies, but companies are reluctant to employ the disabled and it looks futile to rely on exhortation.

Will all this radically reduce the welfare budget? Not soon, because of the huge number of disabled people who are already beyond working age, and because the change in culture cannot happen overnight if it is to be introduced humanely. Nobody who voted Labour in May did so hoping that ministers would cause anguish and poverty to people already badly disadvantaged in life. And, we say again, these changes need to be accompanied by more generous benefits for the badly disabled.

Getting the balance right means mixing compassion and generosity with tough-mindedness about eligibility and need. It means that the Government has to persuade the country and the party that it is at least as worried about the living standards of the disabled as those of the anti-tax, better- off voter - but is also prepared to turf the minority of workshy off benefits. They don't give that impression at the moment. They'd better start.