Time for John Smith to look forward in anger

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE Nye Bevan, still the Labour Party's chief hero, in his last speech to its conference. Lips pursed, finger stabbing: 'This so-called affluent society is an ugly society still. It is a vulgar society. It is a meretricious society . . . I think there is something evil, something abominable, something disgraceful in a country that can turn its back on Hola, that can turn its back on the old-age pensioners, that can starve the health service . . .'

Those words capture, perhaps as well as any words can, the emotional crusade that was at the heart of Labour's traditional meaning. John Smith's Commission on Social Justice will be launched in London this morning: if it is to achieve anything for Labour and Britain in the Nineties, it will reaffirm that old, unending crusade, as well as updating it. Much of the Bevan message is out of date - no Hola camp in Kenya (though camps aplenty in Bosnia). These days, too, pensioners are not the first symbol of the poor (the young homeless have tramped into town instead).

But it is the tone that matters, the anger. Without its crusade, the Labour Party becomes simply pointless, and to that extent, Mr Smith's commission is central, rather than peripheral, to its survival.

So far, so easy. But Nye Bevan was more famous for other quotations, including his attack on the Tories in 1948, when he spoke of his 'deep, burning hatred' for them: 'So far as I am concerned, they are lower than vermin.' Bevan was talking about Tory MPs, but his words chilled and repulsed many people beyond that party, who concluded that Labour was somehow not for them, not a party for the whole country. An old aunt of mine, of liberal views, once said she could never bring herself to vote Labour after hearing that word 'vermin'.

The commission breaks out of Labour sectarian thinking to an important degree. It has no professional party politicians on it, and its terms of reference are ambitiously wide. We cannot know yet how open it will be, how freely and widely the debate will wheel. It has the makings, however, of something that could - just could - kick-start a new kind of opposition politics. If its conclusions are radical, and Labour accepts them, the party will have to find new ways of selling that message, too. If it brought half the imagination to poverty and the welfare state that Greenpeace brought to environmental issues, it would be doing well indeed.

The job is a daunting one. Millions of voters remain aggressively aspirational and deeply suspicious of government's competence to spend their money better than they can. Labour's own polling confirms this. But the job has never been more needed. Remember the 'trickle-down effect'? Figures published by the Department of Social Security in July suggest the average household became 30 per cent richer in real terms between 1979 and

1988-89, but that the bottom 10 per cent actually became poorer (perhaps dropping by around 6 per cent). Without government-made sluices, 'trickle-down' cannot quench the thirst of the many.

At the core of Labour's problem is this dilemma: if the party wants to rationalise and update the welfare system, it cannot in logic avoid attacking the general benefits, such as child benefit and mortgage interest tax relief, that the middle classes like most. Yet these are the very people Labour needs to win over - and child benefit, for instance, reaches families in real need quickly and effectively. Another approach might be to ape the populist policies adopted by Bill Clinton, the time- limiting of benefits and other schemes known, unattractively, as 'tough love'.

But with 3 million unemployed and deep poverty in many of the seats Labour represents, we can leave aside the question of whether Clintonesque social policies would make things worse or better: Labour will not tolerate them.

This leaves the higher taxes alternative. According to senior party people, Mr Smith has privately admitted for the first time that his income tax proposals turned off southern voters. Given all that, the odds on Labour eventually moving towards green or carbon taxes, and perhaps higher expenditure taxes on luxury goods, must be pretty high.

Whatever the commission achieves, however, matters very little compared with the economic policies to achieve sustainable growth. The original Beveridge Report was predicated on full employment, or something near it. Without many more jobs in the real economy, all the clever cake-cutting in the world cannot for long produce portions big enough for a decent way of life. But this raises a whole host of other difficult questions. Should Labour boost Britain's biggest job creator, its hated City? What about that rarity in successful manufacturing exports, the arms industry? Perhaps a second Labour-sponsored commission, on economic growth, should be established alongside today's arrival?

Mr Smith must have realised by now that he has taken on the hardest job in British politics. He has been, it seems, annoyed by criticisms of him (made here, as well as elsewhere). Perhaps he should arm himself with words used by Bevan at Blackpool in 1959, in the same speech quoted at the beginning of this column: 'Let me give you a personal confession of faith. I have found in my life that the burdens of public life are too great to be borne for trivial ends. The sacrifices are too much, unless we have something really serious in mind . . .'

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