Thursday, December 13, 2007

The real scandal of the New Labour years

Harold Wilson once said that the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing. Despite the focus of the last few weeks, I have long believed that the real scandal of the Blair-Brown years is not Sleaze, nor Iraq, nor even the fact that they managed to employ Alastair Campbell. It is the fact that a Labour Government - a Labour Government as Neil Kinnock would have put it - has managed to preside over an increase in inequality.

Today's report by the Sutton Trust provides further hard evidence of this catastrophic policy failure for a party of the centre-left.

Of course it wasn't Labour that started it. The decline in social mobility and emergence of a British underclass over the past 30 years is first and foremost the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. But the fact that the gap has continued to widen in the past ten years is proof, if ever it were needed, that the role of New Labour has essentially been to perpetuate the Thatcherite settlement rather than challenge or overturn it.

Some people will point to the demise of the Grammar Schools as a factor in preventing children moving out of deprived backgrounds. Others will blame house prices. Others will fatalistically conclude that the establishment always reasserts itself, and that the effortless superiority learned at public school will always be worth more in the job market than countless A-grades.

Either way, the political upside is that there is a challenge here for Gordon Brown which, if he can grasp it, might even yet give his government the moral purpose it currently lacks, and a way back from the political malaise in which it finds itself.

There is also, if his pride will permit, an old adversary who could help in that task - former Cabinet minister Alan Milburn, who was warning about this as long ago as 2003.

Back then Milburn wrote: "Getting Britain socially moving demands a new front in the battle for equal life chances. The most substantial inequalities are not simply between income groups but between those who own shares, pensions and housing and those who rely solely on wages or benefits."

It was designed as a possible prosepctus for the third term. Four years on, is it too much to be hoped that such ideas could yet form the basis of Labour's programe for a fourth term in power?

  • Cross-posted at Liberal Conspiracy.

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    Barnacle Bill said...

    I very much agree with what you are saying Paul.
    I often felt than Tony Wot's Name turned Labour into a version of the Young Conservatives.
    But what annoys me most is that many traditional old Labour MPs sold their souls for the chance of government.
    Unfortunately the Bottler would rather enjoy power than go back to his Labour roots.

    MorrisOx said...

    I haven't read the report, Paul.

    I think we can accept that the 'rich' have got richer, whoever they may be.

    But have the poor got poorer? Or is it the case that their 'wealth' hasn't risen proportionately as much?

    And accepting that their situation is poorer in the most fundamental sense, what exactly can a Government do?
    I'm happy to be proven wrong and acknowledge the reality of an issues. But the starting point of any analysis should of the situation of the disadvantaged, not their situation relative to others.

    And what do we mean by riches? Health, education, opportunity or finances?

    Anonymous said...

    The Labour Party has lost any ideological or philosophical beliefs since Blair came to power. I don't see how anyone who grew up with the Labour Party in the past few decades could still believe in what they are doing.

    Anonymous said...

    I've got no brief for the government anymore Paul, but I'm not sure you're being entirely fair. I haven't read the full report, but looking at the full press release and the 6 page summary document paints a slightly more nuanced picture.

    The figures and the analysis both say quite clearly that the sharp decline between social mobility between 1956 and 1970 has stopped, and levels have stabilised. Obviously I want to see it falling as much as the next man, but there ought to be some credit for stopping a deep-seated trend. This isn't a problem that can be tackled in just 10 years - the changes we make cascade through generations. I'm afraid that the way things are going the alternative will be a right-wing arguement that government doesn't achieve anything, all our taxes are wasted, etc.

    And it cannot be coincidence - as the marxists used to say - that the very period that saw falling social mobility was dominated by Tory government: 1970 to 1990s.

    Chris said...

    I'm not and never have a been a Tory, but it's funny how I was a member of the Underclass you mention before Thatcher.

    I grew up in a council house in the 1970s with sash windows which didn't fit and mould up my bedroom wall and a 1950s prefab kitchen (which contained asbestos). Bizarrely, the kitchen was rebuilt in brick and the windows replaced (and central heating installed) in the mid-to-late 1980s. This is checkable. I will shortly give you the name of the street.

    I grew up in a neighbourhood where unemployment was increasingly the norm, where yobs roamed the sheet and violence and robbery were commonplace.

    Where? Some seething inner city? No, Cambridge in Cambridgeshire. The street is called Darwin Drive. Time you grew up, Paul. Thatcher was a scourge on this country as far as I can see, but pretending she created the Underclass is simply you revealing what an out-of-touch, smug middle class guy you really are.

    Chris said...

    And surely the "decline in social mobility" cannot be attributed to Thatcher? That was the decade when I noticed the most movement/blurring under the "we can all have it all" ethos.

    Paul Linford said...

    All fair points, Chris - but why the need to get personal?