Labour must engage with the problems of real life
'Compassionate Conservatism' tapped into people's concerns, yet fails to answer them. The centre-left can offer an alternative
In recent years, Conservative thinkers have laid claim to the mantle of progressive social reform. Part exercise in political repositioning, part retrieval of a tradition of social activism stretching back to Edmund Burke and beyond, the attempt to structure a distinctively Conservative account of social justice and civic renewal formed a core part of David Cameron's modernisation project.
But since the election it has become increasingly clear that both "broken Britain" and the "big society" provided a far better critique of the last Labour government than a guide to governing in a new Conservative register. In arguing that for society to get bigger the state has to get smaller, the centre-right not only exaggerated its critique of government, in the process it demonised a vital tool with which to pursue its social goals. Civic action has not rolled in just because the state has rolled out.
Nor did the charge that Britain was broken ring true. The political frame over-reached itself and the tone jarred with a public fully aware of its society's strengths as well as its strains. The diagnosis too often placed the blame on particular groups of people, perpetuating a divisive "underclass" narrative, rather than giving life to an inclusive project of national unity and mutual responsibility. Similarly, the vital assertion that family is the bedrock of society ended up retreating into a familiar social conservatism, exemplified by the votes cast against gay marriage by 136 Tory MPs.
But the centre-left has yet to adequately respond to "compassionate Conservative" thinking's critique of bureaucratic centralism and focus on the value of civic life. These charges were effective at attacking the Brown government at its weakest points, while tapping into popular concerns about dependency and disorder. Tony Blair's early focus on the value of community in the mid-90s was never translated into a core part of his governing strategy, in part because, as the Conservatives are finding, this is easier terrain for oppositions than government.
New Labour reconciled the centre-left to the creative, innovative and anti-establishment potential of markets, but it was too complacent about their tendency to colonise and dominate areas of family and community life – such as childhood or institutions of the public realm – that are critical to the health and cohesion of democratic societies. Then, as its time in office wore on, Labour drifted into being instinctive centralisers (when it should have been the opposite), loaded more responsibility on to the state (when it should have sought to share the task of governing), and tended to rely on cash transfers and policy transactions (when it should have sought to build institutions and foster relationships). Even while workers' real wages were stagnating, these instincts left Labour open to the charge that it valued material more than moral worth.
Today, not least because of the fiscal constraints the country faces, Labour needs more than just a series of "offers" to tempt voters to the ballot box. It must also level with people about the challenges the country faces and engage with people about the resources and energies that can be put to use in the service of the common good. Its political identity must become both more realist and more democratic, creating the conditions for people to come together to improve their lives and focusing central state capacity on strategic goals and big reforms, rather than the architecture of policy implementation.
In this context, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is launching a new "Condition of Britain" project to help define the central questions to which centre-left politics need to offer answers, rooted in people's own experience and asking them to play their part in any solution. Its title consciously echoes the great traditions of participatory social investigation in Britain, which have often provided the platform for major social reforms. More modestly, in the early 90s, IPPR ran the Commission on Social Justice, which was central to rethinking the centre-left's approach to core social policy questions, and we aim to do something similar today.
This new study will begin with people's own concerns, not the established categories of politics. For example, households under financial pressure as the cost of living rises but wages are stuck, leading many into unsustainable debt with payday lenders. At the same time, families of all shapes and sizes are facing caring pressures as they try to raise their children and look after older relatives, while having enough time for each other and protecting the space for childhood. For many others we know that life is blighted by terrible personal pressures, ranging from depression and anxiety to the experience of loneliness and isolation. Betting shops dominate high streets and there are neighbourhoods under real social pressures, as a result of segregation, disorder, incivility or just the pace of local change.
The centre-left has made good progress in developing a "responsible capitalism" agenda to respond to the ongoing economic crisis. Now it needs to do the same for social policy.