Christian Guy is a former member of the Downing Street Policy Unit and Director of the Centre for Social Justice.
A year ago a speech by David Cameron broke the mould. I confess I’m hardly an impartial observer, since I was working then as his Special Adviser for life chances and social justice. But even Labour MPs quietly admitted that this one stood out. It introduced our plan to tackle the root causes of poverty.
Prime Ministers come alive when they carve out a space to focus on their mission, rather than simply do their duty. For Cameron back then, it was life chances. Free from Coalition, he wanted us to bring neglected issues into the light: chaotic families, worklessness, debt, addiction, prison reform…the list went on.
News of David Bowie’s death came the morning of the speech (we had to rush to a London rooftop to film the then Prime Minister’s tribute), so it didn’t get much cut-through that day. But in the context of Theresa May wanting to fight society’s ‘burning injustices’, it deserves renaissance one year on.
Cameron began by burying two failed poverty arguments: one statist view relying on higher welfare spending, the other putting all hope in the free market:
“Talk to a single mum on a poverty-stricken estate: someone who suffers from chronic depression, someone who perhaps drinks all day to numb the pain of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.
Tell her that because her benefits have risen by a couple of pounds a week, she and her children have been magically lifted out of poverty.
Or on the other hand, if you told her about the great opportunities created by our market economy, I expect she’ll ask you what planet you’re actually on…
…to really defeat poverty, we need to move beyond the economics…we need a more social approach…
…a richer picture of how social problems combine, of how they reinforce each other, how they can manifest themselves throughout someone’s life and how the opportunity gap gets generated as a result.”
For him the anchor was family: “the best anti-poverty measure ever invented’. Going where too few political leaders have been, he earmarked a child’s first few hundred days as a unique window to fight poverty:
“…neuroscientists and biologists say they’ve learnt more about how the brain works in the last 10 years than in the rest of human history put together.
And one critical finding is that the vast majority of the synapses, the billions of connections that carry information through our brains, develop in the first two years.
Destinies can be altered for good or ill in this window of opportunity…
…children who suffer ’toxic stress’ in those early years are potentially set up for a life of struggle, risky behaviour, poor social outcomes, all driven by abnormally high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
On the other hand, we also know – it’s common sense – how a safe, stimulating, loving family environment can make such a positive difference.”
Parenting, he then said, was a critical factor in breaking the intergenerational poverty cycle:
“…mums and dads literally build babies’ brains.
We serve, they respond.
The baby-talk, the silly faces, the chatter even when we know they can’t answer back.
The closeness of contact – strengthening that lifelong emotional bond between mother and baby.
This all matters so much for child development: the biological power of love, trust and security.
So I believe if we are going to extend life chances in our country, it’s time to begin talking properly about parenting and babies and reinforcing what a huge choice having a child is in the first place, as well as what a big responsibility parents face in getting these early years right…
…We all need more help with this – because it’s the most important job we’ll ever have.
So I believe we now need to think about how to make it normal – even aspirational to attend parenting classes…
…And we need to take steps to encourage all new parents to build a strong network…
…So I can announce today that our Life Chances Strategy will include a plan for significantly expanding parenting provision…”
Some politicians get queasy with this, and cry: “nanny state”. Others say such a programme is soft, or are nervous of local budget cuts. But more perceptive ones that know the start that we give our children is a crucial mission for social justice. And almost always overlooked by governments.
Like it or not, Cameron was a Conservative Prime Minister at the cutting edge of the argument: root causes; neuroscience; a parenting revolution; families sticking together; unapologetic state intervention to fight for those stuck at the very bottom.
Critics were quickly drowned out by world-experts, front-line practitioners and MPs from all sides wanting to help. They saw the missed opportunity that SureStart was, and knew the potential to smash the cycle of disadvantage for decades to come if we got it right.
The then Prime Minister went on to cover education, opportunity and second chances. A ‘life cycle approach’. We wrote the Life Chances Strategy, and it went on to Downing Street’s post-referendum grid. A way of re-focusing people’s hearts and minds after a vote to remain in the European Union, we thought. Hmm.
The strategy was far from perfect. Coming after Osborne’s final Spending Review, it was tough to ask weary, cash-strapped departments for new material. Many at the Treasury were apathetic, and we lost Iain Duncan Smith in the process too. But, having led the Centre for Social Justice prior to joining Number Ten, I could see that it represented meaningful progress. It delivered Cameron’s commitments. We were taking strides forward.
Months on, the cast list has changed. Though Brexit comes first, Theresa May, like her predecessor, is a social reformer deep down. Downing Street’s decision to focus on working but struggling families is welcome, even if we’re now stuck with that dreadful acronym ‘JAMs’. But I hope her ideas represent a broadening of the agenda, rather than ditching old for new. It would be disastrous, socially and economically, to drop the radical new focus Cameron promised on the very poorest. And it would be wrong to assume you can simply sweep reducing poverty into a wider social mobility plan: they are not the same.
So a year on from that speech, and six months since Theresa May took over promising social reform, it is time for action. I’m sure her team will improve on our work. But it’s time to see those new poverty measurements promised in the Manifesto and 2016’s Queen’s Speech. It’s time for a world-leading overhaul of parenting and early years policy. We need the other commitments won in the Life Chances Strategy too. Without it, the new Government will come up short. And years down the line, it will fall to another Prime Minister to make another speech with another set of promises, perhaps from another political party. Cameron was on the verge of something special with life chances. May should finish the job.