Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Gordon Brown's communitarian core

Gordon Brown's speech seemed to me very effective in rallying the Labour party to fight the election like their lives depended on it. I imagine its core themes would resonate with a broader public too (though one can not judge from inside the bubble).

The speech showed how the challenges of presenting a sharper electoral choice and entrenching a Labour policy can be linked. The last 200 days of government ahead of the General Election and certainly going to be busy.

I think the symbolic aspects of this agenda are a good idea. Putting the UN 0.7% target for aid into law is a good way to ask the Conservatives to 'ratify' Labour's enormous achievements in international development. And there was also good electoral sense in the moves on social care, on cancer (with a Jed Bartlett West Wing influence), on prioritising education, on free childcare for 250,000 2 year olds, and commitments to protect and increase the minimum wage and child benefit. There is good electoral segmentation. One experienced campaigner told me "there are a lot of issues here which, with a bit more detail, we can turn into good leaflets to campaign on".

Rather than trying to compete with the snap political responses from journalists, I thought I would highlight a few of the thinkier influences behind the speech.

Gordon Brown is a communitarian, not a liberal. That came through very clearly in a speech focused on the core values of fairness and responsibility, though there were some things - no compulsory ID cards and a manifesto commitment to electoral reform - to appeal to liberals too.

Brown's electoral focus on the "squeezed middle" does show how the Fabian Society's attitudes research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has been carefully picked over in Downing Street, which showed that almost everybody self-identifying as the middle. And there was quite a lot in Brown's speech to appeal to what we identified as the "angry middle" too - both in the challenge to bank excess at the top, giving local councils powers to stop 24 hour drinking, and in the challenge to free-riders in the welfare system too.

But this is not simply electoral. The rights and responsibilities communitarianism are Brown's core political beliefs.

But I spotted a couple of lines which suggested some of Neal Lawson's Compass messages do get through - the argument that finance must be the 'servants, not the masters' of the public, while the importance of 'a good local school no matter where you live' is a refrain often heard in local Labour discussions, influenced by Fiona Millar.

Making the idea of reciprocity central does chime with Labour values: it can be difficult for some on the left, though there is strong support in the party for action on anti-social behaviour.

There is a significant progressive case for earlier family intervention - and for effective strategies to reduce teenage pregnancy. But a big part of the challenge is when to go with the grain of public attitudes and when to challenge them. And the right policy might not be the most eye-catching one. There are significant dangers in balancing ideas of intervention with headline messages which sound tailored strongly to the right.

So I imagine the approach to teenage mothers will be highly controversial - I don't know what the detailed proposals are.

For it cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own.

From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That's better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.

I suspect that the Labour audience clapped the opening line because of the ambiguity introduced by ending on "and be left on her own".

But I fear that this could well end up unravelling- like promises to deport all foreign criminals or other eye-catching initiatives from both Brown and Blair. It does throw up images of the Victorian workhouse or of single mothers being packed off to nunneries.

But if that causes a row, it must be one that the Prime Minister wanted to pick.


Stuart White said...

I'm out here in the US (!) and trying to get details via the BBC. I find it VERY depressing that Brown went for a referendum on AV after the election - rather than signing up to a citizens' convention process. I completely agree with Power 2010 that this was a missed opportunity for Brown. The whole proposal - going for AV, not PR; going for a referendum after an election, not at the election - strikes me as symptomatic of Brown at his worst - playing far too safe and not responding with enough fire of principle in his belly.

Gareth Penn said...

As a married middle earner and taxpayer with three kids (one just starting uni), there is nothing in the speech to make me look forward to another term of Gordon's medicine. I am seen as a cash cow to fund his subsidising of the heroic teenage single mothers.

ASBOs are not the panacea for the feral youths in a society that is criminalising all adults to protect not very innocent children.