With the only focus it seems these days and over the last 24 hours especially to observers of government being economic matters and deficit reduction (or more accurately but less eloquently deficit growth reduction since we are not actually yet on course to reduce our national debt just slow the rate at which it is increasing), it might seem that the government has no non-fiscally driven framework for social policy development.
But this is not true based on my own experience. I was asked recently “What is the coalition government’s social policy?”, by which it was meant its approach to social policy-making rather than every government’s mantra of better schools, policing and healthcare etc. Reflecting on my time in government and on how the coalition came together, this was the answer that I gave.
Government does not have one single social policy approach, but three, which are derived from the the fact that it is a coalition. Social justice, social mobility, and social responsibility.
On the one hand, you have a focus on social justice, championed in particular by Iain Duncan Smith, which is about releasing those trapped in different cycles of poverty from worklessness, to addiction, offending and so on. It incorporates ideas around payment by results, social return on investment, and prime contracting (since it is focussed primarily on the impact not size of suppliers). Such an approach should be welcomed for what it is trying to do, moving away from the previous governments obsession with money as the proxy for poverty, even when that same money itself sometimes kept people trapped in it.
The second focus is on social mobility. Assuming through better interventions, work, and support one is now coming out of one or more poverty traps, how can one progress and aspire to a better life, particularly if you come from an excluded background or group. This approach is championed in particular by Nick Clegg, though it is not right to say that it is only driven through the Lib Dems in government. One might argue that Michael Gove’s approach in DFE is very much focussed on how to ensure children progress whatever their background (to be contrasted with some left wing beliefs that low income kids can never succeed). Here the aim is to help you get up the ladder whatever your background, belief, or lifestyle.
The third focus is social responsibility, which is the heart of the Big Society, and championed personally by the Prime Minister. The focus here is on encouraging everyone to play their part, whether as an individual through social action, a community through community empowerment, or as civic entrepreneurs through involvement in the running or shaping of public services. It is important that neither caricature is assumed here about the relationship between your wealth or lack of it, and how responsible you can be: I have met over the years both low income people who take huge amounts of responsibility for what goes on around them, and equally wealthy people who do not, but broadly speaking whilst social justice targets those most in need, and social mobility those in the middle, the social responsibility agenda speaks first to those who have means to help those who do not and ultimately beyond that to all of us where we can play a role large or small.
Which leaves the final question: what is the social policy of the opposition. My reading is that much left leaning policy remains either decidedly 20th century, focussing on poverty and society mainly in relation to income, rather than in its different felt forms in different contexts; or worse because it lacks a layered approach it confuses social responsibility and social justice and social mobility, for example accusing the government of undermining the Big Society because people are poorer due to cuts, or due to university tuition fees – all of which demonstrates a lack of understanding about how social responsibility can work. It seems in the absence yet of a proper nuanced social policy, the left is currently adopting one of social protest, hence its sympathy for industrial action and street based demonstration. Better it seems when in opposition to oppose, rather than develop and articulate social policies that make sense for the austere world we now unfortunately inhabit.
Of course getting elected still mainly comes down to whether people feel their schools, hospitals, police have improved; the economy; and whether you a trust a given party’s leader. But that is another question altogether…