Theresa May, forget social justice – give us politics

Officialdom now treats us more as patients than citizens.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics UK

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In the post-Brexit confusion, you can almost hear the gnashing of the policy-wonks’ teeth. Who are these people? What do they want? But it’s really not that complicated. People might want any number of things out of their lives – but when it comes to social policy, there are a few obvious places to start. Decent schools that children can get into; effective healthcare that people can access; housing fit to live in; jobs with reasonable wages and security; and transport systems that don’t require a degree in logistics, wads of cash, and hours of wasted time. Oh, and people don’t like being told that they’re shit all the time.

It isn’t very much to ask – and if politicians could only get over themselves, it wouldn’t be that difficult to deliver. Build a load of social housing and a decent national-transport network, and people would be better able to live and work where they wanted to. Divert the cash away from public-health campaigns that berate people for being fat, lazy, miserable, alcoholic slobs, and towards health services that dispense medicines and surgical appointments instead of ‘lifestyle advice’, and we’d have a happier, healthier population. Stop terrorising teachers out of the profession and allow them to teach their subject knowledge instead of jumping through an endless series of pointless hoops, and we’d have more school places, and better-educated kids.

None of this is rocket science. It’s not even socialism, or a return to the postwar welfare state. It’s just sensible policymaking for a busy, diverse, civilised society. So why have successive governments found it so hard to do?

Therapeutic governance

One reason is that policy has increasingly become a substitute for politics. Aware of the gap between themselves and the electorate, politicians have sought to engineer an engagement by intervening more closely in the relationships that people have with one another. In this, Cameron’s government was the direct heir of Tony Blair’s New Labour, promoting a programme in which all social problems came to be reduced to questions of individual behaviour and interaction.

New Labour pioneered the process of therapeutic governance, where the goal was to remould people’s expectations, rather than meet them. Providing the services and infrastructure that people needed came secondary to engineering a particular kind of relationship with these services – the engaged parent, the health-conscious patient, the responsible, aspirant homeowner.

A consequence was that the practicalities of everyday life became politicised, while public services became overcomplicated. The emphasis on healthy living led to doctors and nurses having to devote increasing amounts of time to dealing with the ‘worried well’ and scaring their other patients sick. Parents who had bought into the importance of choosing the best education for their child were angry when they couldn’t get a place at the school they wanted, or when the teacher didn’t seem quite up to scratch. Nobody working in public services, it seems, could get on with the job; because ‘the job’ was continually evolving to meet a whole load of extraneous objectives.

Why? Precisely because the government was so keen to connect with people; to ‘heal the divisions’ that appeared to be opening up between the elite and the electorate. Having determined that engaging people through politics was a thing of the past, and that managerial governance was the way to take things forward, the search was on to find a way of managing the people. So the electorate became reconstructed as service users, whose ability to access services was contingent on them playing the role.

Unable, and unwilling, to engage with people politically, as citizens, politicians tried to reach them by meddling in the intimate arenas of everyday life: parenting, education, healthcare, the conduct of personal relationships. These are, of course, areas of life that people care deeply about. While it is perfectly possible to ignore an election campaign, it is much more difficult to remain oblivious to the messages targeted by your doctor’s surgery or your child’s school. But sacrificing political engagement for more effective forms of social control carries some significant risks — as we have seen with the EU referendum.

At least part of the Leave vote was inspired by a reaction against a political class that has set itself up as the voice of expert guidance in matters of individual life – which people are generally capable of sorting out themselves – while failing to address matters of public policy, over which individuals have very little control. So what should this mean for social policy going forwards?

‘Social justice’ is no solution

Theresa May’s coronation speech put ‘ordinary working-class families’ at the heart of her government’s agenda, promising to lead a ‘one-nation government’ that continued Cameron’s social-justice programme. Cynics claim this is mere window-dressing; the woman who famously warned Conservative members that people thought of them as the ‘nasty party’ is now merely pretending to be nice. ‘May believes in justice, but not in social justice; in individual enterprise, but not in uniting communities… May and the strand of Conservatism she represents have never seriously understood or cared about community cohesion and solidarity’, wrote former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper when May launched her leadership bid.

But that misses the point. Promoting ‘social justice’ and the importance of uniting communities has been central to Tory policymaking even before Cameron’s election in 2010. Back in 2006, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a think-tank established by former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, diagnosed the problems of ‘Breakdown Britain’ as stemming from ‘Five Pathways to Poverty’: family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness, and addictions. These pathways to poverty, claimed the CSJ in a later report, are ‘the modern equivalent of the “five giants” identified by William Beveridge in 1942 – colossal burdens that cause huge disadvantage and hold people back’.

Yet the CSJ’s approach is self-consciously very different from the idea of social policy conceptualised by Beveridge during the Second World War. The Beveridge reforms were designed to combat what he identified as the ‘five giant social evils’ of ignorance, idleness, disease, squalor, and want; they involved universal social policies such as the National Health Service, pensions and unemployment benefits, designed to raise standards of living for all.

The postwar welfare state was no utopia. It was designed to mitigate the failings of capitalism to provide, consistently, basic standards of health, wealth, education and mobility for the population as a whole. It required huge, and increasing, sums of public money, and created some problems of its own: as well as the tendency towards bureaucratisation and inefficiency, the welfare state was charged with flattening aspirations to independence, autonomy and creativity. But it had the virtue of providing some practical remedies to society-wide problems, and according people a certain equality of access to provisions.

The approach favoured by the New Labour and the current Conservative governments, by contrast, seeks to encourage a change in mindset rather than material circumstances, and promotes strategies of social engineering in place of social policies. One recent example was Cameron’s flagship ‘Life Chances’ strategy, announced in January 2016 to acclaim from across the Tory party. In the 21st century, improving the nation’s ‘life chances’ would, he argued, result from intervention into four areas of life: the family and parenting, based on the claims of neuroscience; using the education system to develop ‘character’ and ‘resilience’; encouraging individuals to network with the right kind of people; and treating addiction and mental-health problems among people living in poverty.

‘This is what I would call a life-cycle approach – one that takes people from their earliest years, through schooling, adolescence and adult life’, said Cameron. This was another nod to Beveridge, for whom a system of social security would protect the population from ‘the cradle to the grave’; but again, it carries a very different meaning. Rather than providing some basic foundation on which people could develop their lives, the Blair/Cameron style of therapeutic managerialism seeks to intervene directly in people’s emotional responses and lived experiences to bring them into contact with public services. This is all done in the name of ‘social justice’.

Cameron’s programme, like Blair’s before it, seeks to retain those features of the welfare state that limited aspiration and independence, while letting go of the practical remedies that actually helped to make society a better place. Thus the Centre for Social Justice describes its approach as ‘based on the understanding that people must take responsibility for their own choices but that government has a vital responsibility to support those who need help. The state, in partnership with people, charities and business, has a vital and positive role to play in building a more socially just society.’

As such, it accords the state a central role in the governance of intimate life and civil society, via its focus on ‘family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness, and addictions’, but constructs people’s ability to access the basic services they need as a matter of personal will and choice. The net effect of this is to promote the idea that people are the problem, and the solution lies in policies that tell them how to access advice on how to live. And this is exactly what people don’t want.

What people want from policy

When Andrea Leadsom, Vote Leave campaigner and now environment secretary, launched her doomed campaign for the Tory party leadership, she might have been expected to put action on the Brexit vote at the centre of her pitch. Yet, to some bemusement from her audience, she talked at length about the importance of manipulating babies’ brain development and announced that, in fact, ‘my absolute commitment is to the emotional health of our nation’.

This kind of statement sums up the prevailing outlook of the political class, even in the wake of the most political event to have taken place in decades. And it gets everything the wrong way round. It assumes that the problem of social divisions – this ‘broken’, ‘fractured’ Britain that needs ‘healing’ – lie within families and communities themselves. Policies seek to regulate relations between neighbours, between generations and between ethnic groups, always assuming that if only people could interact with one another in a particular kind of way, society would be a better place.

But the problems with British society do not lie in people’s emotional health – and even if they did, this is not something that policymakers could ever hope to fix. People are pretty good at getting along with each other, raising their kids, and dealing with the difficulties that life throws in their way. When politicians and their experts come along to peddle guidance and support, this only reinforces the sense that they are out of touch with real life, and view their citizens with pity and disdain.

The big divide remains that between politicians and the people. In addressing this, the remedy is quite simple. Talk to people as citizens rather than service users, about political ideas not ‘evidence-based’ prescriptions. And then, develop social policies around the things that people want and need, rather than the priorities that will make politicians feel better about themselves.

Jennie Bristow is senior lecturer in sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University and an associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies. She is author, most recently, of Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Her new book, The Sociology of Generations: New Directions and Challenges, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in June. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Topics Politics UK


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