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A defining value

Tony Blair spoke the language of social exclusion and opportunity rather than of poverty and equality on taking office. He and other ministers made clear that redistribution through the tax-benefits system was no longer on Labour's agenda. So there were no illusions to be dashed with regard to tackling poverty and inequality.

June 1, 2007
2 min read

One of the more surprising milestones of Blair’s premiership, therefore, was the announcement in 1999 of the commitment to the eradication of child poverty by 2020.

Although the first interim target of a 25 per cent reduction by 2004-05 was missed and the most recent figures recorded a 100,000 increase over the previous year, the number of children living in poverty has been reduced by 600,000.There has also been a steady reduction in the number of older people in poverty to the extent that they no longer face an above average poverty risk.

The reduction in child poverty has been achieved through a combination of welfare to work and largely means-tested ‘making work pay’ measures in line with New Labour philosophy (although these and the minimum wage have not prevented high levels of in-work poverty). But it also reflects real improvements in support for children in families not in paid work (the real value of support for children under 11 has doubled) – just the kind of redistribution Blair dismissed. Surveys suggest a reduction in hardship as a result.

These are real achievements, which we should acknowledge. But there is a long way to go to achieve the child poverty target. Moreover, there has been a 0.3 per cent increase in the number of childless working-age adults in poverty to the highest recorded rate since 1961, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. And some asylum seekers have been made destitute.

Gordon Brown’s limited redistribution by stealth has helped to stem the growth of income inequality. Nevertheless, it reached a record high in 2000-01 and is slightly worse today than when Blair took office. This damning fact largely reflects the rise and rise of the super rich, who are enjoying unprecedented levels of wealth. As Peter Mandelson notoriously put it, ‘We are seriously relaxed about people becoming very, very rich.’

Not surprising, then, that Blair apparently vetoed a 50 per cent tax rate for those earning £100,000-plus and that there are no targets to reduce inequality of income and wealth. But for those of us who hold equality as a defining value for the left, Blair’s refusal to use the oncein- a-lifetime opportunity provided by his original landslide victory to promote a more equal society is unforgivable.

Ruth Lister is professor of social policy at Loughborough University.

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