25/01/2012 09:01 GMT | Updated 25/03/2012 06:12 BST

Labour's Moral Crusade in a Time of Austerity

From time to time, disaffected Labour voters ask what the Labour Party is for. Even committed Labourites like ourselves feel it is an important question to ask.

From time to time, disaffected Labour voters ask what the Labour Party is for.

Even committed Labourites like ourselves feel it is an important question to ask.

It takes on a powerful new form as we slip evermore deeply into the age of austerity. The pressing issue of the day is the economy and how to reduce the deficit. Labour has been forthright in exposing the failure of Osborne's deficit reduction plan and the absence of any meaningful strategy for growth.

But the problem with a focus solely on financial matters is that it can act as a distraction from Labour's historic mission for social justice and the kind of real and lasting social change that will make Britain a country fit for all, not just the well off. Harold Wilson, not immediately remembered for his flights of rhetorical fancy, described Labour's mission well. 'Labour', he said, 'is a moral crusade or it is nothing'.

A moral crusade.

Yet much of our current political debate singularly fails to engage at all with what we might call the ethical aspects of politics and particularly with the ethics of deficit reduction.

Take the discussion on Newsnight that took place after the Lords had pushed through an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill that would exempt child benefit from the cap the government want to place on benefits.

Jeremy Paxman interviewed a Conservative MP, a shadow minister and a Bishop. The difference in language used by the three was staggering.

The Bishop of Leicester expressed concerns for people in his Diocese currently faced with the struggle to keep a roof over their heads as their housing benefit is cut.

Tory MP Margot James spoke about choice. This surprised even Jeremy Paxman - was there really a choice involved in keeping a home or losing it if you no longer had the money to pay the rent?

And how did Labour's Liam Byrne choose to respond? He did not talk about the ethics of promoting a policy that will leave many facing homelessness. He did mention homelessness, but he focused on the cost to the taxpayer of having to pay for emergency accommodation for those made homeless by the cap.

Now, he may well be right to raise this practical issue. But this focus on financial costs rather than morality suggests a peculiar problem for Labour. Obviously our plans have to be credible and costed. We are not flat earthers. But at the same time to talk only in such terms is to lose the vision of Labour's history while running the risk of developing a strategy that fails to acknowledge the stark inequalities that the government's flawed plan is exposing.

It was left to the Bishop to raise the issue of an increasingly unequal society, and he did so in unequivocally ethical language. He argued that the effect on the poorest in society seeing the richest gain at their behest is extremely damaging for a cohesive society.

Perhaps it would take a clergyman to make this connection, but it's disappointing that a shadow minister didn't.

There is something pathologically wrong with our society when we fail to look after poor families at the same time as sales in luxury diaries and letterheads are rocketing.

Reference is often made to the 'filthy rich' but let's make sure that we go after them with the same vigour Iain Duncan Smith is using to go after his undeserving poor. Let's chase them for their taxes and close those loopholes!

To take on the rich is not a sign of being anti-business. It's obviously the case that we need people to have ideas and to be entrepreneurs in order to provide employment and raise revenue. But if the inequality between rich and poor isn't addressed in a better and more systematic way, we will not escape the evils that money can bring.

Is it morally right to chase benefit claimants when the promised growth and jobs are not materialising? The UK desperately needs to see jobs created with the revenue that comes from workers paying taxes. Yet we should never forget that there are tax evaders who owe this country in excess of £40billion. If we need to focus on deficit reduction, presumably the HMRC bill will be looking to increase late payment for taxes too?

Labour should be wary of responding to the government's plans by offering new forms of micromanagement. "We would be better at making cuts" is a dangerous narrative to pursue. Labour's mission has to be more, and it has to involve speaking out for the vulnerable, the poor and the marginalised.

Thank goodness that there are members of the party who are doing just that. For without a message for a more ethical, more equal society, the Party fails in its mission to create a better and more hopeful Britain for all its citizens.