Leading article

Regressive Conservatism

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party is coming to resemble a drunk trying to get home on a bike. Most of the time he just pushes it along, but occasionally he mounts the saddle and whirls into action — only to find himself swiftly spread-eagled on the road.

Take next month’s local elections. Corbyn launched his party’s campaign trying to bemoan the state of Britain. There are plenty of statistics which he could have trotted out to depict a country underperforming on living standards, debt levels and social mobility. But he chose to cite a supposed decline in life expectancy — which is demonstrably and famously wrong. Life expectancy is rising so quickly (five hours a day, says the chief executive of the NHS, Simon Stevens) that it is adding to fiscal problems.

With Labour unable even to diagnose what’s wrong with Britain, let alone suggest any way of solving it, there is a gaping hole to fill in the political market: how to address poverty. Traditionally, this has been Labour’s ground, but they cannot fill it and nor can the Lib Dems, whose weakened resources are allocated almost entirely to fighting Brexit. Nor can Ukip, whose bid to replace Labour as the party of the working poor has run into the ground.

That leaves the Conservatives, who have come agonisingly close to claiming the issue of social mobility for their own. Towards the end of the Cameron era it looked so promising. An unprecedented rise in employment suggested that Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, whatever their other faults, were succeeding in their fundamental objective: to eliminate the welfare trap and get more people into work. Tax cuts — in the form of a rise in the tax-free allowance — have done much to make work pay and lure people off the dole. As a result, the lowest-paid did the best under Cameron. Reducing poverty by boosting earning power rather than benefits is what Ed Miliband used to call ‘pre-distribution’. But it is now a Conservative policy, shorn of its jargonistic name.

But when Cameron went the momentum on social policy was lost. Theresa May’s most memorable contribution to the debate has been to suggest that socio-economic policy has been too focused on those at the very bottom and not enough on the ‘just about managing’. She has yet to develop this policy beyond a soundbite. Certainly, grammar schools will do nothing to help children from disadvantaged homes who are routinely shortchanged by the primary school system and ill-placed to pass a grammar exam. We can see, in May’s agenda, a partial return to the days when the Tories were only out to help those people they saw as strivers — without stopping to ask themselves why those at the bottom were failing to strive. Or why they were striving, but failing to thrive.

Cameron had been on the point of releasing a further assault on poverty under his One Nation Conservatism agenda, but the policy was abandoned after his resignation. Its remnants appeared this week when Damian Green, the Work & Pensions Secretary, laid out government policy on workless families. Importantly, it defines the problems of poverty widely — taking it beyond a simple lack of money. It identifies nine measures: including parental conflict and mental health, problem debt, homelessness, school attainment and youth unemployment.

The Blair and Brown governments failed on social mobility because they became fixated on a single measure of poverty: the number of children brought up in homes with less than 60 per cent of the national median household income. The target was too simplistic, and exaggerated progress: a family nudged above the poverty line with as little as £10 a week could be deemed ‘lifted out of poverty’, but would be amazed to hear themselves so described. Perversely, in the midst of the last recession child poverty officially fell – but not because the poor were really better off; it was because the earnings of people on median incomes had fallen.

This has long been Labour’s problem on social issues. Being more interested in bashing the rich than helping the poor, it sees poverty only in its financial dimension rather than looking at family structure, alcohol and drug dependency or the scandal of a state school system where the children from the richest families do best and the poorest worst. Labour behaved as if cash, and only cash, was the problem. The Tories, even in a time of austerity, lifted the incomes of the lowest-paid and forced inequality to a 30-year low. Cameron’s reforms led to the top 1 per cent paying more income tax than the lower 75 per cent for the first time ever.

A long list of social justice achievements can now be paraded, yet the Tory party seems to have lost interest. It would be tragic if a fixation with Brexit leads the party to give up now, having accomplished so much. And tragic if the Tories conformed to the old cliché of having head but no heart. Cameron made huge progress creating a welfare safety net, while at the same time giving people an incentive to clamber out of it. He also presided over education reforms which have raised the ambitions for children of all backgrounds. Theresa May must not now allow the agenda to slip in a misguided effort to distinguish herself from her predecessor.

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