"Today I want to talk about how we eradicate poverty in Britain".
He focused on how he would go about tackling the root causes in a distinctly different way to Gordon Brown’s failed top-down approach. He acknowledged that Brown also had the objective of tackling poverty, and was sincere in it, but tore up the recieved wisdom of the Chancellor’s methods, shred by shred:
"He sees limits on what the voluntary sector, social enterprises and community groups can do… Gordon Brown looks at area where the state has failed and thinks the answer is more state intervention, more of the same. I look at state failure and say: let’s try something different."
The speech was marking the launch of the Social Justice policy group, based at the Centre for Social Justice. When talking about the Centre’s effective giving programme, Phillippa Stroud pointed out at the start that the left-leaning IPPR think-tank had more new employees last year than all of the conservative-leaning think-tanks put together.
Iain Duncan Smith, the chair of the new policy group, followed with an engaging introduction on the role of the group and the challenges that need to be met. He challenged those who don’t believe in government seeking social justice by pointing out that the very building they were in, Hawkstone Hall, had hosted launches of Wilberforce’s anti-slavery drive, the ragged school movement of Shaftyesbury (pictured) and that the spire was donated by the family of Abraham Lincoln who had drawn his inspiration from the conservative moments that had started there. The packed audience of party activists, charity workers, MP’s and opinion formers were amused by IDS’ self-deprecating jokes such as, in reference to Cameron’s leadership: "I had the job once actually, in case you missed it!".
Similarly to the leadership race, the Chancellor was in Cameron’s crosshairs. Attacking him on his home turf he talked of "Third Scotland" where male life expectancy is lower than in Bosnia, Gaza strip, Iran and North Korea. He cited Calton where 57% of adults don’t work at all as two in five of them claim incapacity benefit. As Scotland has the same tax and benefits system as the rest of the UK but with disproportionately more funding, the fact that it is also the place where problems with the welfare state are at their starkest shows that there is a problem with the method:
"Only this week in my constituency surgery, a working single mum told me that she would have a higher income and a better house if she gave up her job. She’d done the maths. She’d be better off on benefits. But she chose to stay working. It was a small victory of the human spirit against the vast scale of Gordon Brown’s state machine."
The policy group will be comprised of seperate working groups: Home and Family, Education, Economic Security, and Drugs, Alcohol and Debt. Detailing the role of each, he stressed the importance of strong families and decent education, Brown’s not-so-good record on job creation, and the need for more drug rehabilitation places.
Cameron then moved on to elaborating on a great phrase that I hadn’t heard before, "the nation of the second chance". He wanted the fifth working group to focus on making this a reality, particularly by developing plans for ‘Social Enterprise Zones’:
"We will never fulfil our potential as a nation by giving up on our fellow citizens, abandoning them to long-term unemployment, educational failure or addiction."
How are we going to achieve that?
"Here, I don’t think the voluntary sector has an important role to play. I believe that the voluntary sector has the crucial role to play."
In concluding, Cameron said that the ambition of smaller government alone is not enough:
"You cannot have a smaller state unless you have bigger, more responsible people. Growing levels of social breakdown are creating growing demands for welfare and other forms of government intervention. Limited government is impossible without renewing the forms of behaviour and social structure that prevent poverty and create community. Communities are not created from the top down, but built from the bottom up."
The 45 minute speech was laced with personal experiences, which combined with the statistics to make his argument very compelling. There was a positive atmosphere in the hall to match the positive undertones of the speech. The endemic failures of the Labour party on helping the vulnerable contrasted with the reinvigorated feeling about the Conservative party, and its evident care about the issues that matter to people.
Some questions from the audience followed, they were all pertinent and from people in relevant organisations and experiences. Key points made during the Q&A’s include:
- The good thing about National Service is that it brought everyone together
- Charities need financial security, annual contracts stop them working for the long-term
- A single, ethnic minority mother stood up confidently.. she praised the speech and pledged herself as a ‘guinea pig’
- We have to be careful about how we let the term Social Justice be defined
- We should judge faith-based projects on what they do rather than on the fact that they have religious beliefs
Personal comment: "I joined the party as an idealistic Scouse teenager completely on my own accord, wanting a new approach to how people interact with the state. A few years of party politics inevitably dulled the passion somewhat, but I’m not ashamed to say that I feel there is something happening now which is truly exciting. For many people there was a sense of change and hope in the air when Blair swept to power, feelings towards him couldn’t be more different now and it’s eminently faesible that the same goodwill is about to be channelled towards Cameron’s "modern, compassionate conservatism". The best thing about this social justice driven agenda is that it anchors some of the ‘vacuous platitudes’ of late to distinctly conservative principles. There was more detail in the speech than I could recount above, but the real detail will come in 18 months time from the policy groups – we must give the talented Shadow Cabinet the benefit of the doubt until then. This politics of trusting people will reciprocate into people having more trust in the politicians that advocate it. This is the kind of government our country desperately needs. We need Reagan-esque optimism now more than ever, not the cynicism British Conservatives can be prone to. For me, Cameron’s speech marks a milestone on the right path for our party, and I believe he was sincere in what he was saying. I’ll be sure to hold him to it."
Report by Sam Coates, Deputy Editor.