The new politics of disadvantage
A young Labour leader argues for Britain to be rebuilt as ‘one nation’, a country in which each citizen is ‘valued and has a stake’. Not Ed Miliband’s conference speech this year, but Tony Blair on a cold December morning in Stockwell in 1997. Tomorrow marks exactly 15 years since Blair gave a boldly ambitious speech pledging to ‘bring Britain together’ on the launch of New Labour’s social exclusion unit.
It’s hard to overstate the influence of the social exclusion agenda on New Labour’s early years in power. It was classic ‘third way’ positioning in portraying social disadvantage as multifaceted and about more than income poverty. But it also led to an early flourishing of policy innovation that led to successful welfare-to-work schemes, more children in early years education and dramatic progress on homelessness, as well as paving the way for later personalisation in public services.
However the weaknesses of the agenda have been exposed by the radically different social and economic circumstances of the UK today. The social exclusion agenda relied too heavily on large, one-off investments like the £1.71bn spent on the New Deal for Communities and levels of marginal spending which are unlikely to be so high again. Although unprecedented levels of funding went into tackling social problems like drug addiction, homelessness and other forms of exclusion, the highly relational support needed to recover from these problems was often lacking.
Politically, New Labour never got much public recognition for its imperfect but impressive attempts to tackle some of the most difficult problems in society because the agenda lacked a compelling story. The narrative of a small, dysfunctional minority, the ‘2.5 per cent’ marooned from the rest of society never rang true. It was in fact the opposite of one nation politics, contrasting an unfortunate few against a comfortable majority, instead of building common ground in areas like mental health, social isolation, family support or the need for more responsive public services.
Fifteen years on, Britain is facing a set of social problems which promise to be far greater than those of the mid-1990s. Last year saw a 14 per cent increase in the number of homeless households, the largest increase for nine years and, over the past 12 months the number of evictions by private landlords has risen by 70 per cent compared to three years ago. Drastic local authority cuts are being compounded by the steady erosion of the voluntary sector, which is reversing much of the progress of the past 15 years.
Labour needs to learn the lessons of the social exclusion experiment and consider how to create the basis for the social recovery that is needed every bit as much as the economic recovery. A pamphlet to be published next week by IPPR brings together new and established voices to consider what the foundations of this social recovery would look like. It sets out a radically different approach to tackling social disadvantage which connects with majority concerns and can help form the basis of a genuinely ‘one nation’ politics.
Clare McNeil is a senior research fellow at IPPR and author of The new politics of disadvantage: New Labour, social exclusion and post-crash Britain, which will be published next week. She tweets @ClareMcNeil1
ippr, Labour, New Labour, one nation Labour, social exclusion, Tony Blair