It is people in need who will lose in the war of words between
Labour and Tory writes Ian Hernon.
Who pledged to build a ‘new relationship between the welfare
state and those who turn to it for help – a relationship that
treats them as citizens, not supplicants’?
Was it Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell, or Shadow Social
Security Secretary Chris Smith? Which of them said, on the same
day: ‘Our new options will reward the thrifty for their
responsibility and retain our promise to provide help for those
unable to meet their own social care costs.’?
Confusing, isn’t it? Both men could have uttered either
sentence. In fact the first quote is Smith, the second Dorrell.
This is not a rant against Tony Blair’s New Labour and its shift
towards a moderate Tory agenda, rather to point out that the
rhetoric of change concerning the welfare state is almost
The real test is who can deliver a viable and realistic benefits
safety net without abusing the Exchequer. In that sense Dorrell
represents a Tory Party, fading fast, which paid more than lip
service to caring, while Smith represents a more hard-nosed
approach which aims to persuade tax-paying voters in Middle England
that Labour is not an easy touch.
Dorrell was outlining his plans to help people protect their
homes and savings in readiness for long-term care by encouraging
them to take out insurance policies. The main proposal is to
establish a partnership scheme for people using a policy or an
annuity to meet some of their care costs.
Smith was arguing that people should be planning to top up their
state pensions from alternative sources as they entered a new
millennium. Even the use of the word ‘partnership’ is common to
both Old Tory and New Labour.
Smith, carrying on the re-think of Labour’s welfare policy
started by his predecessor Donald Dewar, said ‘returning to 1979
and putting back in place what was there then is not the sensible
way to address the need for social justice’.
He suggested Labour might spend less on social security. Paying
out more in benefits was not a benchmark of success, but a mark of
failure in social policies.
To hammer home such truths Smith pointed out that the Beveridge
report, on which the welfare state was founded over 50 years ago,
was based on two underlying principles: individual, as well as
Beveridge aimed to vanquish the ogres of ‘want, squalor,
idleness, ignorance and disease’. To that list Smith added two
more, ‘insecurity and exclusion’, the twin monsters of
He attacked the government for increasing insecurity of those in
work, who fear that if illness or redundancy strikes there will be
no safety net, and the exclusion of an unemployed underclass who
‘are reluctant to exchange the comparatively certain, though hard,
world of life on benefit for the uncertain world of work’.
Quite so. But the doubts remain. Smith has promised to spell out
more detailed policies in a series of documents by June, but final
judgement will have to wait until the election. Families on or
below the poverty line, young people in care and pensioners who
dread fuel bills need to be reassured, as well as floating
If Smith’s pastel pink socialism merges too much with Dorrell’s
pale blue Toryism, it is the needy who will be bruised.