A new revolutionary slogan

Peter Wilby identifies a remedy for Brown's ills

Does Gordon Brown have a political philosophy? The past few months have convinced many that he is an empty vessel and that new Labour, stripped of Tony Blair's charm, deserves the same description. So perhaps now is the moment for Brown to reassert his commitment to progressive universalism.

This rather unwieldy term - the revolutionaries of 1789, I suspect, wouldn't have got far with cries of "liberté, égalité, universalisme progressif" - has been used to cover a multitude of political sins. I shall confine it to a recent Treasury definition, "support for all, with more support for those who need it most", and call it PU for short. It implies that everybody should have access to a state service or payment, regardless of means, but the needy should get extra service or higher payments. The result (theoretically) is that the poor get stigma-free help, while the better-off gladly pay taxes because they receive a share of the benefits.

You may think this principle applies to all or most state services. But education and health, for example, tend to deliver more in both quality and quantity to the affluent than to the poor. If anything, these services are regressively universal. Prescription medicines, however, fit PU principles because everyone is subsidised, but children, the old, and the poor don't pay anything. The child trust fund, introduced by Brown when he was Chancellor, is also PU. It is available to all children, but the government will put in more for those from the poorest homes.

An example of where Brown could reaffirm PU is in financing long-term residential care for the elderly. At present, anyone with assets of more than £21,000 gets no help at all. This may have alienated many people from state taxation, and from inheritance tax particularly. In a report for the King's Fund last year, Sir Derek Wanless proposed that the state should wholly finance care for everybody up to a certain level and then, up to another level, match, pound for pound, anything put in by the individual. It remains to be seen whether an official review, promised this month, will favour this option.

Another area Brown might consider for PU is child poverty. Child benefit has a near 100 per cent take-up and, therefore, reaches more poor families than complex, means-tested credits. A government fully committed to PU might, in the long term, try to combine all payments for children (child benefit, tax credits, education maintenance allowances) into a single system. For now, a simple device, advocated by the Institute for Public Policy Research, would allow ministers to target resources at poor families while strengthening the universalist principle.

Almost alone among developed countries, Britain pays more benefit for the first child (£18.10 a week) than for second and subsequent children (£12.10 each). Many countries, including France, Germany and Italy, pay a higher rate for third and subsequent children. Though large families enjoy some economies of scale, these are far outweighed by the difficulties of both parents taking paid employment, and the need for more complex child care and more spacious accommodation. Again, we have regressive universalism, since poor people tend to have larger families. Whether they are poor because they have lots of children or because they had a prior predisposition to poverty is a peculiarly British argument. A government's business should be to ensure all children have adequate living standards.

According to a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (Child Poverty in Large Families by Jonathan Bradshaw et al), 42 per cent of all poor children live in families of three or more. These children are at least 50 per cent more likely to be poor than only children. If they all got £18.10 in benefit, 250,000 would be lifted out of poverty instantly, calculates Kate Stanley, head of social policy at the IPPR. That would make a major impact on the 1.7 million target for 2010 which the government is little more than halfway to achieving. At £1.6bn, it would be expensive. Stanley proposes reducing the cost to £1bn by restricting the increased benefit to the poorest families identified through the tax credit system. But if I were Brown, I would cough up the full amount, emphasising the universalist element of the change, and the unfairness of the present payments. Who knows, it might be a policy the Tories want to steal.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?