Andy Cook is Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice.
Amid the increasingly pointless shouting fest that is Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, this week my ears pricked up at one two-word phrase.
We’ve had burning injustices, strong and stable, shared societies, and fair societies. But one phrase that has been intentionally absent from the Prime Minister’s lexicon for the past year is social justice.
In January, Theresa May gave her one and only major social reform speech at the Charity Commission’s annual meeting. She said that we had to move on from social justice: “To deliver the change we need and build that shared society, we must move beyond this agenda and deliver real social reform.”
She was distancing herself from her predecessor and the cabinet that went before. She was setting out a bold new vision of her own. She was the country’s new leader.
But since surrendering this ground, Jeremy Corbyn has been throwing the term around with wild abandon. From Fidel Castro, the “champion of social justice”, to a “social justice manifesto” of mass public spending, it has become the vacuous tagline of a Labour leader riding high on a crest of dangerous, virtue-signalling sloganeering.
So when Robert Jenrick MP asked a question about his local free school in Newark on Wednesday and the Prime Minister replied that it was “not just a question of education but of social justice”, I punched the air. Twice.
Given I work for the Centre for Social Justice I would do, but any government who wants to improve this country must also be concerned with social justice.
It is completely unacceptable that a child living in one of England’s poorest areas is 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than a child living in one of its richest areas. It is to our national shame that a child born to a poor family will die a decade younger than one born to a wealthy family.
How can we possibly rest when a teenager growing up in the poorest fifth of households is two thirds more likely to experience family breakdown than a teenager in the top fifth of households.
And so May’s willingness to even use the phrase after a self-enforced year of abstinence is important. But even more than that, she is using it correctly.
Social justice is emphatically not socialism. It is about ensuring that every person has the equal opportunity to fulfil their human potential regardless of when, where, or to whom they were born. It is about belief in their innate potential that will come out if given the tools to do so, rather than parking them in a system or place that demands nothing and promises little.
Education, as she noted, is absolutely central to that.
But more than that it demands an understanding of the real problems people face and an understanding that although money is a factor, it is rarely the most important one. It demands intelligent, targeted intervention where it is most needed and effective, not mindless and unaffordable blanket spending promises. It demands long term solutions, addressing deep root causes, with life changing ideas.
It’s tempting to read too much into what could have been a slip of the tongue or an old habit dying hard, but after a year in the desert it is time to reclaim this language. Social justice matters. It should be the core work of any and every government. The Prime Minister should speak of it more often.