Why understanding beats condemnation

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The Independent Online
WHAT are you most worried about, you, the comfortably middle-class, concerned reader of the Independent? At the most basic level, we worry about our jobs, money, the education of our children, whether the roofs on our houses will survive another winter without repair. And after that? Nuclear war? Not recently. Global warming? Well, what do you expect me to do about it? Gatt? Only if I try very hard. The electoral success of Vladimir Zhirinovsky? How did you spell that?

No, what worries us most, I suspect, is the kind of society we are turning into. We worry about the growth of broken and single-parent families; about the huge numbers of children who are routinely subjected to cruelty; about children who leave school without any marketable qualifications; about men rendered useless by their unemployability; about rising crime against property and random street violence; about young people sucked into drug abuse and related criminality.

We worry about these things - and note how they are related, each one with the other - on two quite distinct levels. On one level, we are ashamed to belong to a society and to a culture which appears to tolerate the human waste and misery implicit in a large and growing under-class. On another, more selfish, level, we are becoming scared for ourselves and our families. We are scared that this under-class will drag the rest of us down. Its welfare dependency will eat up our taxes, while its anger and envy will threaten our physical safety and the security of our homes and possessions.

In the same way that the purveyors of insurance policies and burglar alarms seek to gain advantage from our fears, so the players in the political market-place have joined in battle for our attention and our custom. The Tories, as we would expect, have gone for the down-market, hard-sell approach. Declare war on unmarried mothers, clamp down on benefit fraud, give new powers to the police, build more prisons and make plenty of finger-wagging speeches condemning the fecklessness and irresponsibility of the lower orders. This is, of course, a wicked caricature - there is nothing wrong with pursuing those who illegally exploit the social security system, and many Conservatives, notably Kenneth Clarke, find the preaching of their colleagues tasteless and silly. But still, I think you will know what I mean.

Underlying the Tory pitch is something more far-reaching - a long-term reform of the welfare state which is intended to prevent demand-led social security spending from swallowing an ever-increasing proportion of national income. Whether or not the Conservative fears about unaffordable levels of welfare expenditure are justified, it is clear what is driving the exercise. It is about saving money.

If Labour intended to go into the next election committed to upholding and extending the welfare state in its present form, it might just as well run up the white flag now. Fortunately, it is not.

A year ago, John Smith launched something called the Commission on Social Justice. It was not a very auspicious start. Although Mr Smith seemed happy for the commission to work independently of the Labour Party and be untrammelled by the burdens of Beveridge and Bevan, he went out of his way to distance himself from any of its conclusions. In particular, he made clear that he, for one, had little time for fashionable ideas about the more efficient targeting of benefits.

Since then, quite a lot has happened. In the first place, the context for debate has changed. The ballooning of the public sector borrowing requirement and the swingeing tax increases which the Government has announced to reduce it have removed what little leeway to raise spending Labour might have hoped for. That means that Labour has to be no less concerned than the Tories about efficiency. It has become almost axiomatic that, if you are serious about poverty, you also have to be serious about targeting. The question is not whether to do it, but how.

Second, it so happens that the commission is dealing with precisely the issues that have become absolutely central to the concerns and fears of much of middle England. Something that might have been thought of as a well-meaning think-tank for idealistic chatterers which John Smith could pat on the head and ignore, if he so wished, has become central to Labour's credibility and appeal at the next election.

There are two essential differences between the Government's approach and that of the Commission on Social Justice. One is that the commission is carrying out its work in public, tapping into a wide range of expertise and experience, attracting an avalanche of submissions from around the country and publishing issue papers as it goes. The other is that it is actually interested in making the welfare state work better. In the last 10 days the commission has produced two papers which, in their different ways, should propel Labour's thinking.

The first is a timely analysis by Edward Balls and Paul Gregg of the way in which structural changes in the labour market - above all, new technology and a pool of educated women prepared to work flexibly - have rendered unskilled men increasingly unemployable and have thus become a potent cause of family breakdown.

These men are less likely to get married (women don't want them) and more likely to get divorced. Many of them also turn to crime. Education and training structures are inevitably blamed but, more interestingly, the report argues that the inflexibility of the benefit system is a major job destroyer.

The paper produced this week, entitled Social Justice, Children and Families, by Patricia Hewitt and Penelope Leach, was a refreshing attempt (after the recent Tory onslaught) to look at families as they actually are, as opposed to how we might like them to be, and to suggest ways in which society can help and support them in the raising of children.

The paper concludes with a series of options for the reform of child benefit - which, after the retirement pension, is the most sacred of Labour sacred cows.

What links these two issue papers is a serious attempt to find solutions instead of scapegoats.

If the final report of the commission in the autumn of next year is as good, Labour would be mad not to take full advantage of it. By the next election, the results of society 'condemning a little more and understanding a little less', in John Major's now oft-repeated phrase, will be apparent to all.