Against most prior expectations, Alistair Darling has made the fight to end child poverty the big domestic news story from his first budget. Reaffirming the government’s commitment to ending child poverty in the UK, he announced significant new spending to help to meet its targets, if later than planned. An extra £765m in the coming financial year and £950m in 2009/10 is expected to take 250,000 more children out of poverty over the next few years.
Predictably, this renewed commitment has been given a cautious welcome by anti-poverty campaigners: they are reassured by the increased spending, but stress that it is still not enough to meet the 2010 target, to reduce child poverty by half since 1999. In fact, the proposed package is not even quite enough to meet the first target – to reduce child poverty by a quarter by 2004-5.
But the significance of the announcements should not stand or fall on the targets. Its real significance lies in what it tells us about how the government is planning its strategy up to the next general election.
There have tended to be two schools of thought within the Labour camp on the place that child poverty will play in the coming election. The idealists say we should look at the lessons from the US Presidential campaign and try and sprinkle some Obama magic on domestic policies – and that ending child poverty is the moral crusade that can inspire and reinvigorate Labour’s core voters.
Labour pragmatists, meanwhile, are sceptical about any such ‘core vote’ strategy. They doubt that child poverty is a vote winner – indeed, given the level of spending commitment needed to make substantial progress, it may even be a vote loser. As Labour has to play well in the South if it is to retain power, the more pressing need, they say, is to provide reassurance and tackle levels of discomfort in Southern constituencies.
Both the idealists and the sceptics are half right. After ten years of public service reform and quiet – even silent – redistribution, British voters are just as much in need of hope and inspiration as their American counterparts. But the pragmatists are also right to warn that child poverty is not yet a great crusading cause for our times, which can enthuse the wristband generation like tackling poverty in the poorest nations.
What Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have started to recognise, however, is that alongside the moral case, there are very strong strategic reasons for prioritising child poverty in the UK, even in the unpromising economic climate that threatens to derail other spending commitments. Up to now, David Cameron’s position has been to support calls to end child poverty, as a way of showing his party has changed, but without tying the Conservatives to any of the policies that are needed to make ending child poverty a reality. Today’s Budget shows Labour’s determination to hold the Conservatives to account on their warm words on child poverty and social justice, setting a child poverty trap for the Opposition: to put their money where their mouth is on child poverty – effectively, to ‘put up or shut up’.
Far more is at stake than scoring political points, of course. It is an uncomfortable truth that no government is in a position to end child poverty by 2020. We are too far away from the 2010 target for the impossibly ambitious goal of ending child poverty in a generation to be met. But although it won’t be achieved in one generation, now is not the time for hysterics or defeatism. As today’s Budget shows, sustained progress over time is crucial. And if in two generations, governments – both Labour and Conservative – have helped create the kind of society where no child grows up in poverty, where no child’s life chances are blighted by material want or social deprivation, future generations will draw hope and inspiration from that achievement.