Completing our series of five essays on ‘A Government Worth Having’, Greg Clark MP, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, writes about the three policy realignments at the foundation of the Conservative Party’s social agenda. He also discusses his own agenda of voluntary sector reform.
New Labour took office with huge advantages: a charismatic leader, a three figure majority, a golden economic legacy. With so much capital – both political and financial – no Government has ever had so big an opportunity to change Britain for the better.
But they blew it.
Money, time and luck all have a habit of running out. And when they do, there’s no disguising what’s been wasted. The British people are waking up to the waste of the Labour years – and it’s this growing sense of disgust with the opportunities squandered, as much as deepening fears for the future, that has destroyed Gordon Brown’s reputation.
And it is Gordon Brown who is principally to blame. He is the one who forced extra spending through unreformed public services, blocking every significant attempt to challenge the old model of top-down state delivery.
Statism did not die with Old Labour. Instead, the objective of a centrally-planned economy was replaced with that of a centrally-planned society. In fact New Labour went much further than Old Labour – micromanaging the people who actually deliver our public services to an unprecedented extent. Billions have been wasted as a result – but with one valuable outcome: Brown’s way has been tested to destruction and the way is now open for genuine reform. If we do form the next Government, Brown’s economic legacy will be far from golden, but unwittingly he may leave us with something more important: a mandate for change.
THREE POLICY REALIGNMENTS
In previous articles in this series, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Nick Herbert and Maria Miller have set out some of the specific reforms that we will champion on education, welfare, crime and the family. Together they contribute to a coherent Conservative agenda for Government, one characterised by three fundamental realignments of social policy.
Firstly, we will treat the root causes of the social problems facing Britain, instead of merely palliating the symptoms. Child poverty provides an example of the urgency of the need for change: On the surface there has been moderate – and now faltering – progress on the headline figures. However, underlying child poverty – the number of children who are either below the poverty line or would be without tax credits – has increased from 2.1 million in 1996/97 to over 3 million in 2005/06. It is right that people should be given financial help if they are in poverty, but we should not leave it at that. When a million more children than 10 years ago live in households that are reliant on benefits to avoid being in poverty, we should not delude ourselves that the problem has even begun to be solved.
The second realignment follows from the first:
A shift from merely managing social breakdown to dealing with its root
causes means transforming a purely financial understanding of
disadvantage into one that addresses the deeply personal reasons why
individuals and communities become trapped in deprivation.
That, surely, is the lesson of the last fifteen years – a period in
which millions of new jobs have been created, but where millions of
people remain stuck in long-term worklessness. There is no external
reason why this has to be the case: rather, the obstacles are within
Britain – where far too many people are held back by the consequences
of educational failure, family breakdown, addiction, problem debt and
the debilitating effect of economic inactivity itself. Only a
Government determined to enable families to overcome these factors has
any right to claim that it is truly and sustainably lifting children
out of poverty.
The third transition follows from the second:
Dealing with the causes of deprivation at the level of the person means
that public services must be able to address individual circumstances.
It should be obvious that a centralised model of state provision is as
ill-equipped to meet the immense variety of social needs as the Soviet
system was to meeting the immense variety of consumer needs. That is
why we need to move from monolithic provision of public service to the
maximum possible diversity of providers – including the charities,
social enterprises, co-operatives and community groups that make up the
voluntary sector. This isn’t a matter of ideological preference;
voluntary organisations are already demonstrating their effectiveness
in actually solving and preventing the social problems that have
defeated the state.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
The great challenge for a reforming Conservative Government is about
recognising the success of particular projects and enabling success to
be replicated from one place to another. We certainly won’t succeed by
merely paying charities to operate under contract to behave in exactly
the same way that government would behave. That is Labour’s approach: a
formula not for replicating successes of the voluntary sector, but for
spreading the failures of the state.
Rather we need to empower individuals, communities and local
institutions to commission services from the best providers,
channelling public funds accordingly to reward success. That means
giving voluntary sector providers as much right to make a return on the
risks they take as any private sector supplier. There are those who
think that charities shouldn’t be allowed to make a surplus to reinvest
when they succeed – not least those parts of state bureaucracy who seek
to contain the voluntary sector by taking any excuse to hold back or
claw back payments. This is the defining false economy of the current
system – one that prevents the expansion of effective solutions to
social problems, leaving the problems to fester, ruining lives and
draining public resources.
The need for change is undeniable and the Conservative Party has
signalled its determination make that change – in successive speeches
by David Cameron and in the detailed proposals set out in our green
paper, Voluntary Action in the 21st Century.
This isn’t just a policy sideshow, it the agenda on which our broader
ambitions for a Conservative Government will stand or fall.