Saturday, 21 February 2009

Willing the means on poverty

Roy Hattersley's speech this morning to the Fabian and Webb Memorial Trust centenary conference can be read here.

He argued that the government had made progress on poverty, and that the government was reluctant to admit even the degree of redistribution that had been achieved, and so the 'modesty of the reduction is a direct consquence of the modesty of ambition'.

A significant reduction in poverty requires a substantial redistribution of income and wealth. And, if we pretend otherwise we betray the poor. The easy answers are mostly inventions intended to salve the conscience of the middle classes. The “trickle down effect” is a pure fiction. But it is still trotted out as the justification for the rich getting richer and advanced as a warning that, if we take specific action against poverty, we will endanger overall prosperity. There is neither economic nor historical justification for that scare story No sensible social democrat argues for reckless spending - either on social provision or the renewal of the nuclear deterrent. The problem for a succession of Labour Governments has not been recklessness, it has been caution – not so much in terms of the balance of public revenue and expenditure as in the policies on which the money was spent.

Rushanara Ali of the Young Foundation, and Labour ppc for Bethnal Green and Bow, also speaking at the conference, said that the greatest challenge for incumbent governments was getting out of a mindset of incumbency. This was a job for activism as well as for goverment. But she joined Hattersley in advocating a bold approach: that the argument had to be put that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

It is easy for Labour debates to slip into what might have been done differently since 1997. But governments govern. This was also a discussion about what could still be done now.

The test is whether there can be a substantial move in April's budget on child poverty. It would take £4 billion to catch up to the 2010 child poverty target.

Do the recession, the government's role in keeping the economy moving and the banking bailout now make further redistribution unaffordable. Or, as debt necessarily rises anyway, is this the moment for an enlightened self-interest case - for putting more money in the pockets into those most likely to spend it - can be joined with a moral argument.

Hattersley, stressing he has been careful not to criticise the Brown government since the transition, said the central message was clear: "A Labour government can not succeed without a moral purpose". There remains time to renew it.

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