Don't ignore the core, Tony

Labour may not need the votes of the poor to get re-elected, but it is dangerous to abandon traditio

It is now clear that new Labour can win elections without the poor. To put it another way, the reality of 21st-century electoral politics is that Labour can no longer rely on simply delivering its core vote to the polls. The core may remain substantial, but it is a declining proportion of the total electorate. The party therefore has to consider its duty to its traditional voters - how to protect and enhance the interests of the poor - while continuing to extend its appeal up the income scale.

In the 1980s Labour tried to offer what it considered a politically correct, traditional programme for exciting core voters - and lost. It won the last election when swathes of traditionally Tory voters believed it was time for a change. These people, along with large numbers of first-time voters, were fed up with the Tory sleaze soap opera. They were also disillusioned by being pushed into the exchange-rate mechanism (ERM) at the wrong time and the wrong rate. Fortunately they forgot that Labour officially supported this policy.

That was not all. Voters reacted so decisively against John Major's bedraggled Tory government because Labour was led by Tony Blair. Without his leadership, and without the promise of a bar on income tax rises, Labour would not today enjoy its 180-strong majority over all-comers. Subsequent cuts in the basic rate of income tax have cemented this tentative middle-class Tory support - as the Eddisbury by- election proved. Blair has clearly touched parts of the electorate no other Labour leader has been able to reach.

And "Blairism" makes an early Tory recovery nearly impossible. The Tory appeal in the past has been based on voter-resistance to state socialism. When Blair offered non-ideological politics, 3.5 million Tory voters crossed to Labour.

However, the excitement of the victory directed attention away from an examination of long-term voting trends. Since the second world war, turnout in general elections has been declining. Significantly, the decline has been greatest in Labour areas. In local government elections, this trend is more marked and turnout in safe Labour seats can be as low as 10 per cent. Increasingly, the poor are not bothering to vote or even to register. Why?

I would like to think I win in Birkenhead, now a rock-solid Labour seat, because I try to provide my constituents with a good service at local and national level. But the truth is less flattering. The traditional vote has turned out in Birkenhead and voted Labour for two overwhelming reasons. First, the Labour candidate is best placed to beat the Tories, and many of my constituents quite simply hate Tories. The second reason is that a Labour government has always been perceived to be basically on their side. Now, though, core voters are questioning this "biological link" between themselves and Labour - a rift that Charles Kennedy, the new Liberal Democrat leader, appears ready to exploit.

A Labour Party that ceased to care for the poor would, for many, not be the same party that once championed labour issues in this country. But the party need not become rudderless.There is a genuine Third Way based on policies that cater for the proper interests of Labour's new vote and for its old core voters. Welfare, education and health all offer opportunities for developing such policies.

The government is still in a twist about welfare reform and has temporarily abandoned the strategy of combining the interests of old and new voters. Pensions are a case in point. The government is not proposing a universal stakeholder pension that would benefit rich and poor alike. Such a scheme has to be good enough for richer people to join and at the same time help pay for the poor.

Similarly, much more must be done for the poorest pensioners, who are almost exclusively older pensioners. I don't advocate a general resurrection of the earnings link for the state pension, but restoring and making good the shortfall for those over 80 would help this group.

Frank Dobson has made valiant efforts to get hospital waiting-lists down, but a longer-term strategy is needed. Labour cannot deliver a first-class health service to poor and richer people alike under the current system of funding. The extra £20 billion it has allocated over the next three years is not that generous compared to Tory NHS growth.

Radical thinking is required. Hospitals need to be denationalised and given back to their local communities with the board elected on a local franchise. Then, local people will once again raise additional sums for what they will feel is genuinely their own service. Before the war, voluntary hospitals in rich and poor areas alike raised around a third of their budgets from local people; this could happen again. Local authorities could be given the power to collect a special local health tax if voters agreed to such a proposal in a referendum.

But more fundamental reforms, including a health tax or insurance, must be on the agenda to safeguard the principle of a free service at the point of treatment.

The government is delivering on the key issue of raising standards in education with £19 billion of largely new money over the next three years. But while standards in schools in the poorest areas rose fastest, there is still a long way to go before they are on a par with richer schools. Much more money is needed, not least so that we can pay teachers a salary that matches the green paper rhetoric on how important they are. Again, this requires new thinking. Currently parents must either try to support their local schools through raffles and suchlike, or else opt out and pay for private education. Why not consider a third way?

The distribution of the national education budget should be better weighted towards the poorest schools. All schools should begin to encourage parents to covenant a small part of their income to the school while their children are pupils. Many parents would welcome the chance of freely contributing an extra couple of hundred pounds towards the cost of, say, an extra teacher, rather than having to cough up for private schooling or move house to get their children into a better school.

Labour has an obligation not to stand by as its traditional voters lose faith in democracy. It has to demonstrate that it believes in the same things. Even MPs and local authorities find the piecemeal reforms confusing. Launching flagship reforms in each of the main areas would not only build confidence among the core voters but, if well chosen, could also enthuse those who voted Labour for the first time in 1997.

Frank Field was minister for social security and welfare reform 1997-98