Andrew Selous is Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire, Trade Envoy to South Africa, a member of the Health and Social Care committee and chairs the Conservative parliamentary Social Justice Caucus.
Unsurprisingly, Brexit continues to dominate the airwaves, taking all the political oxygen out of the room and reducing the bandwidth available to the Government to articulate vigorously a domestic agenda. Meanwhile, the most significant threat for decades to wealth creation and this country’s ability to pay for policies to protect the poor and vulnerable, in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s Labour Party, stays worryingly high in the polls.
Providing enough decent and affordable housing particularly for young people remains a pre-eminent challenge in attracting younger people to the Conservative Party. We have always been a party committed to a property-owning democracy, wanting to spread wealth and assets especially housing assets as widely as possible across society. The Prime Minister certainly understands this, and we must redouble our efforts to build the homes people need particularly in areas where housing has become unaffordable to keep the dream of the widest possible homeownership alive. Hermann Wildermuth, the post-war German housing minister, recognised this challenge when he noted that the level of the Communist vote was in inverse proportion to the number of housing units completed. For Communist then, read Momentum now.
As we make progress in building the homes our country needs, we also need to re-establish the twin pillars of conservatism, namely enterprise and social justice. As Conservatives, we understand that you cannot have a socially just society if you do not create the wealth to look after the disadvantaged.
As the Prime Minister said in Cape Town recently: “In those countries that have successfully embraced properly regulated market economies, life expectancy has increased and infant mortality has fallen. Absolute poverty has shrunk and disposable income grown. Access to education is widened, and rates of literacy plummeted. And innovators have developed technology that transformed lives.” She went on to say, “I want to demonstrate to young Africans that their brightest future lies in a free and thriving private sector. One driven and underpinned by transparency, high standards, the rule of law and fairness. Only in such circumstances can innovation truly be rewarded, the potential of individuals unleashed and societies provided with the opportunities they want need and deserve.” There are millions of young Britons who need to hear this narrative articulated powerfully, persuasively and as a clarion call by all in our party.
Conservatives absolutely get the need for inclusive growth, as well. It matters hugely that wage growth for so many has been so flat for so long. The Centre for Social Justice’s recent report on productivity should be compulsory reading for business and government alike. It is not acceptable that 85 per cent of people who start their working lives in entry-level jobs end their working lives in entry-level jobs. Many of our major competitors do much better than us. The new T-levels will help in this area but we also need to ensure there are multiple ladders of opportunity, for example in ensuring that Further Education colleges open in the evenings and on Saturdays to help those already in low-skilled work who can’t take time out of employment to train, so they can gain the skills they need to earn more.
Our belief in free markets does not mean that we will fail to call out abuse where we see it. Matthew Taylor’s review of the gig economy and the work the Government is doing with the OECD to tax international digital businesses are just two examples of that in practice.
From Wilberforce to Shaftesbury, from Disraeli to Baldwin, from Sir Henry Willink and his commitment to the NHS, to Rab Butler, a commitment to social progress and social justice has always been at the heart of conservatism, although at times in our party’s history it has not featured prominently as it should have – as Oliver Letwin has recognised in his recent book Hearts and Minds.
The power of the analysis of the Centre for Social Justice’s five pathways to poverty should continue to guide all we do. Iain Duncan Smith deserves huge credit for leading this work so passionately over the last 15 years. What this approach to combating poverty identifies above all is that a combination of disadvantages for many of our fellow citizens means that income transfer alone is not enough to help them escape their situation and become “the author of their own life story”, as Michael Gove so pithily puts it.
The five pathways are educational underachievement, worklessness, debt, addiction and family breakdown. Hard-working teachers are to be congratulated on improving the performance of their schools so that 1.9 million more children are now being taught in good and outstanding ones. The British jobs miracle under Conservative-led governments since 2010 has seen 1,000 jobs a day created and the lowest unemployment for 40 years. This could not have happened without our welfare reforms, which continue to make sure that work pays – something that, shamefully, did not used to be the case. Of course we want to see productivity increase further so that high skilled, high value-added businesses are able to pay higher wages.
Debt remains a huge problem and financial education in schools, and schemes like the recently introduced ‘Help to Save’ are part of the answer, along with the more widespread use of credit unions.
Addictions rage across our society, causing untold harm to so many. We need to develop resilience, willpower and the ability to say ‘no’ in our young people. Our hard pressed-police are having to deal with an epidemic of young people on motorbikes ruining lives as they brazenly sell drugs. Teachers are struggling to deal with the effects on children whose mothers have taken drugs and consumed excess alcohol during pregnancy. Many adoption societies are dealing with babies born addicted to drugs. Concerns have been expressed that fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is being diagnosed wrongly as ADHD. I would like to see greater prioritisation in tackling this issue from both Public Health England and the Home Office. Our national addiction to sugar and other high fat and salt foods costs the NHS around £15 billion a year. Think what a fraction of that could do for the police budget, for example.
It is in the area of providing the skills and support to people to help make a success of their marriages, relationships with their partners and their overall family relationships that I and at least 60 or more Conservative MPs want to see the Government taking more forceful action.
Strong families are indispensable to reducing poverty, increasing well-being, and helping governments live within their means. Just as we have a good understanding of sustainability in environmental and financial issues, so we need to appreciate the need for social sustainability. The UK has unusually high levels of family breakdown compared with our major competitors, and this is an economic as well as a social cost to our country.
I think of the 50-year-old man being divorced by his wife, a council tenant for decades coming to see me about his housing need in one of my surgeries recently. I also worry for his well-being as he moves to live alone and loses the companionship of family life. Healthier, happier marriages and couple relationships would reduce the demand for housing, felt so acutely by younger people.
There are a raft of interventions delivered by the voluntary sector that the Government could signpost people to throughout their lives, delivered by the charities in the Relationships Alliance and many others. This issue should be completely central to Conservative philosophy as a key part of our social justice agenda. Research of academics such as University of Berkeley Professors Cowan and Cowan has shown conclusively that improved couple relationships lead to better parenting outcomes and higher levels of income within families. The public strongly back pro-family policies which avoid any hint of stigma and which come along side people where they are, to offer the skills and support in the most important area of their lives.