Leading Article: The message from Dudley? Mr Blair still doesn't know what happens next

Related Topics
As is so often the case, it was Paddy Ashdown who "won" this week's three-way tussle at Prime Minister's Question Time in the House of Commons. He commented that listening to Tony Blair and William Hague's exchanges on welfare reform was "rather like watching a lost edition of Call My Bluff". This was a strikingly apt analogy, because much of the confusion engendered by the fuss over welfare reform is to do with definitions. The late Frank Muir might have defined welfare as a medieval payment for drawing water. Today's contestants have two other, rival, definitions lurking at the back of their minds. There is welfare as in state, cradle to grave, British and a Good Thing, albeit somewhat old-fashioned. And there is welfare as in dependency, scroungers, American and a thoroughly Bad Thing.

It is too late to bemoan the Americanisation of this part of our language. Labour won the election on a platform which relied heavily on using the word welfare in this newer, transatlantic sense. One central promise was to get people "off welfare and into work", a costed programme giving four specific options to a defined group of the unemployed. Another central promise was to "reform the welfare state", the objectives of which were, by contrast, entirely hazy. The only thing that was certain about this pledge was that it would not add to public spending - indeed, it would provide the framework within which spending on social security benefits would decline, as public investment in education increased.

Polly Toynbee pointed out in our pages yesterday that this was a dangerous promise, because it raised expectations on the right and fears on the left of big cuts in the social security budget which were unlikely to materialise. She is right: it is dangerous. That is why Mr Blair was back on the road again last night, in Dudley town hall, unfashionable heart of the real Britain which elected him. But we should applaud rather than criticise him for taking this particular risk. The welfare state does indeed need a radical overhaul. It may be that this will not have a dramatic effect on the total budget, but the assumptions underlying state benefits and people's perceptions of them do desperately need to be shaken up and tested.

What is worrying is the half-baked and piecemeal way in which the Prime Minister has drifted into the "national debate" which he sought to launch last night. He gives every impression of having only the vaguest idea of the desirable end point of welfare reform. And the truth is that the debate launched itself without waiting for the synchronised spinners, and was launched by high-pitched controversy over precisely the wrong issues. Cutting lone parent benefit might conceivably have been a logical part of the later stages of reform, but it was only counter-productive and limiting to allow that furore to dominate the start of the process.

Likewise, it was misguided to try to introduce the concept of an "affluence test" last weekend - a test which, incidentally, the cut in lone parent benefit would fail, and which confuses rather than clarifies the issues. It is well known that Frank Field, the John the Baptist of Blairite welfare reform, has always opposed means testing. His words were predictably thrown by the Conservatives at the Prime Minister on Wednesday: "Means tests penalise work, tax savings, and place a penalty on honesty."

To which the right response would have been: Yes they do, but there will always be a tension in the system between help for those in need and incentives for people to help themselves. The trick is to get the balance right, and at the moment the system is too much tilted towards putting people on benefit and keeping them there. Hence Mr Blair's sharp distinction last night between those who can work, who should, and those who cannot, who should be treated compassionately - within existing resources of course.

That is right; and if there is a pot of gold in welfare reform it must lie within the pounds 20bn paid each year in disability benefits. Sure, some categories of people who should have been getting help in 1979 were not getting help and now are. But a sixfold increase in sickness and disability? It does not inspire confidence that Labour has only just discovered this statistic.

The big question, though, is: which Mr Blair was speaking in Dudley last night? Was it the breaker of the trade union block vote who knew precisely what he wanted but did not to spell it out for fear of provoking opposition? Or was it the Clause IV seat-of-pants-flier, who tore up the old socialist creed without the slightest idea of the form of words which would replace it?

The last time he was in Dudley he was a salesman without a product, selling a new Clause IV that had not been written. That came right in the end, but this is bigger, more complicated and affects people's lives directly. We applaud Mr Blair's decision, at last, to lead. But we are not at all clear where he is heading.

React Now

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

The Richmond Fellowship Scotland: Executive Director

£66,192 per annum including car allowance of £5,700): The Richmond Fellowship ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Office Junior

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Site Agent

£22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This traditional family company...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Fighters from Isis parading in Raqqa, northern Syria, where the ‘Islamic State’ has its capital; Iranian-backed Shia militia are already fighting the group on the ground in Iran  

Heartlessness towards refugees is the lifeblood of jihadist groups like Isis

Charlie Winter
Refugees try to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near Gevgelija, on Wednesday. The town sits on the ‘Balkan corridor’ used by refugees, mostly from Syria, to travel from Turkey to Hungary, the gateway to the EU  

The UK response to the plight of Syrian refugees is a national embarrassment

Kevin Watkins
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent