Tuesday 30 September 2008

Two strands of Tory thinking

The possibility and difficulties of cross-party political consensus was the theme too of a Fabian Society and Webb Memorial Trust fringe event, in association with the Centre for Social Justice and the End Child Poverty campaign.

Iain Duncan Smith and Martin Narey were again on the platform as our ‘child poverty challenge’ fringe roadshow moved from Manchester to Birmingham, though we had lost Polly Toynbee to commitments in London. IDS thought he had better say pretty much the same thing to his own party as he had said to Labour. The panel also included Samantha Callan, Ben Page of MORI and myself as a late substitute for Polly T.

We were addressing the question: Child Poverty: is it the warmth or the wealth? This was partly a tribute to the Conservative leader, who told his conference last year that he could not offer a hard luck story as he had a fantastic upbringing but that ‘it wasn’t the wealth; it was the warmth’. Or, perhaps more seriously, while everybody agrees that addressing poverty must be about more than income, is there still a disagreement about whether income poverty must remain central? And have the Conservatives converted, or not, to the idea that poverty must be understood in relative terms?

IDS’ emerging theme is that intergenerational problems can not be dealt with effectively if there is a stop-go approach where one party coming to power tears up everything the other has done. On this, he is right. The ambition should be a poverty prevention settlement which is as deeply embedded as the NHS was in the post-war political consensus. And that is why many of us on the left concerned with inequality and poverty pushed for, and then welcomed, the Conservative shift on the language of relative poverty and inequality – including the apparent willingness in 2006 to acknowledge that relative poverty matters, and to at least aspire to the progressive goal of ending child poverty. This was, at least, a major improvement on John Moores' claim in 1988 that poverty in Britain had been abolished.

Yet we remain a very long way from a consensus on ending child poverty which is fit for purpose. There have been major shifts across the parties in political language, but not on policy. That all parties talk about child poverty and inequality is progress – but, while the Labour government has delivered progress since 1999, none can claim to have done enough to will the means.

Most of the civil society and non-party experts on poverty and inequality believe that the Conservatives have moved backwards since 2006. The extreme vagueness of any Tory policy agenda undoubtedly increases scepticism that the aim was a rebranding and repositioning exercise. The frontbench have done nothing substantial to address that at this conference, as both Stuart White and Jenni Russell report that they found when trying to pin the jelly to the wall during yesterday’s ippr fringe,

But that is not a charge that I think can fairly be levelled against IDS. I would certainly differ on several points of analysis and policy recommendations with the social justice agenda he is developing on the centre-right. But his sincerity can not be in doubt. He is pushing his party to go further – but it is unclear how big a constituency he will have.

Tonight, there was a lot of consensus on the importance of the early years. IDS said he had criticisms of SureStart, but argued that his party should not rip it up. Rather he wants to see a cross-party agreement over increased investment in the early years over the next twenty years.

Martin Narey had some eye-watering examples to support the idea that this would be, in the long-term, extremely good value for the taxpayer. It will be expensive in the short-term.

I am not sure how far we got on relative poverty. IDS was pretty clear that ‘of course, income must be part of this’ but stressed the wider social determinants. We don’t know how the Conservatives will respond to the government’s commitment to legislate on this ‘progressive end’

What struck me is that there are two different approaches influencing Conservative thinking in this area, which point in very different policy directions. One possibility is that the small c conservative instinct – that conservatives adapt to change once it has happened – will see a perhaps reluctance acquiescence to New Labour innovations, like the early years. This was the Conservatism which informed Churchill and Macmillan after 1951 – it was politically highly effective, if rather philosophically promiscuous and unrooted, and the public politics of Cameronism stand in this tradition.

But the other instinct points in an opposite direction: the right’s renewed interest in social justice has also revived a long-standing right-of-centre critique of the welfare state, as crowding out voluntary provision and individual initiative. This is a much more radical prospectus, challenging the foundational principles of post-war welfare provision, and indeed links directly to the arguments of Helen Bosanquet against Beatrice Webb’s 1909 arguments for a welfare settlement along the lines of what was to become the Beveridge settlement. It is an argument which combines localism with a desire for a significant rolling back of the state – and a sometimes vague hope that a ‘rolling forward’ of society might follow.

Both of these strands of thinking can be found in Conservative social justice thinking and analysis. It is too early to judge as to which will prevail. However, it is interesting that the detailed research of the Centre for Social Justice on areas like relationships support, and the early years, is leading to detailed policy recommendations which challenge the simplistic analysis of ‘state failure’ in which rather too much of the new would-be progressive Toryism is still couched.

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