New Labour - social transformation and social order

Will McMahon, Acting Director of the Harm and Society project at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

This paper was presented at the Criminal justice and social justice conference on 5 July 2007.

Not for citation without prior permission.

Ruth Levitas makes an important point in a recent article `Shuffling back to equality' with regard to where we are at present and where we have come from:

She argues 'it is very easy to forget that the current levels of inequality in the UK are relatively recent' and that shifts from direct to indirect taxes and cuts ins corporation tax and higher income tax rates means that the richest 10% have increased their share of total net income by almost one third between 1979 and 2002 while the poorest 30% have seen their share fall.

Following Ruth's lead I do want to reflect for a moment on the intensity of the period most of us in this hall have lived through - I am thinking of the one that began roughly around 1977 until the present day. I think it is important because as Ruth argues 'it is very easy to forget', very easy to be captured by the present lived reality.

It is often thought that contemporary British political and social history is divided into 'BT' and 'AT' (before and after Thatcher) and whilst it is always problematic identifying historical staging posts a crucial moment were the social spending cuts implemented by the Labour Government in 1977.

From this time, when Chancellor Denis Healy prefigured Mrs Thatcher's 'prudent housewife' election spin by arguing that 'we cannot spend more than we earn', there began the increase in poverty and inequality, and the journey towards the more divided society we know today.

By any measure, the years between 1977 to 1990 were one of periodic and significant social disorder. From the late 1970s whole sections of the British population experienced an accumulation of traumas.

A later accompaniment to social disorder was the legislated social disorganisation of everyday life. It it's drive to create a more individualistic, competitive and self governing society Thatcherism claimed to have set people free by changing the micro-political economy of almost every aspect of personal existence for the whole population.

Legislative changes to nursery and schooling options, financing of university education, pension provision and personal social care for the elderly, the sick and the mentally ill and the mass sell off of council housing and basic utility supplies had radically changed people's lives.

Life was transformed by the elevation of `choice' as the motor-force of service delivery. At an individual level many welfare services were turned into quasi-markets for `consumers'. At the global level of the welfare state there was a huge shift away from an ethos of universal social insurance and a collective guaranteed minimum towards personal and family obligation.

All that was solid about the post war welfare consensus, from life long employment to the welfare safety net, had been actively unravelled and seemed to have melted into air.

So we have come through an extraordinary arc of change.

This is more than a reconfiguration of resource allocation using social and economic policy levers.

As Peter Marris suggests in The Politics of Uncertainty, in such circumstances the burden of uncertainty is redistributed downwards and increases the cumulative insecurities of the least powerful and most vulnerable in society and also `tends to maximize uncertainty for all, because it undermines the reciprocity of social relationships'.

Rather than being an ally, your neighbour might now be viewed as a competitor for scarce social resources. One can think of the queues to get an NHS dentist or the well known practice of parents getting religion, or moving house, in order to access what is perceived to be a `good school'.

It is not inevitable but there are material and emotional pressures in that direction. So, for example, when looking at the literature on anti-social behaviour it becomes clear that rather than seeing teenagers on the street as engaging in social activities they have for some become viewed as a source of anxiety and menace.

The increased insecurities have a double source - first the endogenous economic and social policy changes but also the full force of globalisation.

So people have been placed under tremendous pressure. There are a lot of issues concerning the different capacities of people to adapt, depending on where they are in the social structure, to the new environment that has been created around them.

Some of you may have seen the coverage at the beginning of last week of what the media referred to as 'the middle class crime wave'. This was a briefing CCJS published based on research by Karstedt and Farrell that appeared in the November 2006 edition of the British Journal of Criminology.

One of the interesting points of the research was the reasons given by the middle classes, who were neither needy nor greedy, for their non-payment of VAT or fiddling of insurance claims and the like: many referred feeling ripped off by pension mis-selling, the sale of endowment mortgages and even bank charges. They say they feel vulnerable to much more powerful forces in society and they feel that they are getting their own back. They were unconvinced that law governed social order was working properly.

They were perhaps expressing part of their experience of the great disorder and transformation that our society has gone through.

This brings me to the first of four points about New Labour and this social transformation

When New Labour came to power it began to tangle with this question of how to restore social order at the level of the social relationship and community

That, as David Blunkett argued in his book Politics and Progress, that we need to and I quote him directly 'appreciate the scale of the social disaster brought about by the neo-liberal period'.

More than simply restoring order there was a question of how to maintain social order in a further period of rapid economic and social transformation. Particularly in areas that had for twenty years felt the brunt of what Blunkett described as 'neo-liberalism'.

The question New Labour asked, and I think has been unable to find an answer to, is how to reconstitute civil society at a local level on its terms - e.g. within the framework of globalisation.

This leads to my second point.

How New Labour organised much of its discussion of the reprucussions of `neo-liberalism' through the term `social exclusion'. The use of the term allowed New Labour to build a broad coalition who could read different narratives into the concept; Ruth Levitas describes the narratives as:

Each narrative enabled New Labour to talk to three audiences at once. But clearly there was always going to be big tensions in how this was implemented in the real world. Part of New Labour's social policy story has been how this has unpacked over the last decade.

Part of this story has been how people who think of themselves as being `progressive', engaged with the social exclusion discourse from a redistributive or social integrationist perspective, took up positions in side governmental projects, and found themselves being taken places that they would rather not have not gone.

My third point is that New Labour has used the discourse to offer to solve what it thought was a suitable level of problem.

There is a group who are socially excluded that are the product of Thatcherism. They are mostly located in areas of severe deprivation. Through the application of a specific set of policies we will enable them to overcome the social exclusion they face.

There were Education Action Zones, Health Action Zones, Sure Start areas, New Deal for Communitites, Employment Action Zones and a whole range of pilots - in fact there were so many pilots at one point that I think it was Malcolm Dean who described New Labour as `Having more pilots than the RAF'.

This was also re-inforced by the managerialism that gripped New Labour. Multi-agency teams, cross departmental meetings and the phrase that I first noticed a couple of years after 1997 'thinking across the piece'.

This was under-pinned by an appeal to the evidence base:

'It should be self-evident that decisions on Government policy ought to be informed by sound evidence. Social science research ought to be contributing a major part of that evidence base. It should be playing a key role in helping us to decide our overall strategies.' Blunkett Speech to ESRC in 2000.

So for example even as late as the 2005 Labour Party Conference Charles Clarke - 'we have to determine by the next general election ...we have eliminated the anti-social behaviour and disrespect that blight the lives of so many'.

My fourth point is that as we know the problems the people thought of as 'socially excluded' in their day to day lives have not been so amenable to solution and that the response to this has been fall back onto some very conservative social policy themes.

Through the social exclusion dialogue we have the re-emergence of the underclass thesis.

I want to refer here to John MacNicol's 1986 Journal of Social Policy essay, In pursuit of the underclass. MacNicol describes the `cycles of rediscovery' and `reconstruction' of what has been variously described as `the social problem group' or `the problem family' or `the underclass' by at least three generations of policy makers in the twentieth century.

MacNicol refers to Sir Keith Joseph's 1970s discovery (and this may sound contemporaray) of dysfunctional families in the inner cities who needed aggressive state intervention - those of you who remember Keith Joseph will probably do as Margaret Thatcher's chief intellectual architect.

MacNicol argues that in its periodic reconstructions the `underclass' concept has tended to consist of five elements:

First, an artificial administrative definition relating to contacts with particular institutions of the state - welfare agencies, social workers, the police and as such it is a statistical artefact.

Second, in order to attain scientific legitimacy such a definition has to be conflated with the quite separate question of inter-generational transmission through either heredity or socialisation - otherwise the underclass could simply be those `at the bottom of the pile' at any one time. And it is the transmission of alleged social inefficiency rather than structural inequality that is the focus of attention.

Third, there is the identification of particular behavioural traits as anti-social and the ignoring of others; and as part of this exercise it necessary for proponents of the underclass concept to lump together a wide variety of human conditions (in order to make the problem appear significant) and attribute them to a single cause (so that it appears a problem amenable to solution).

Really, in this third point, a better description of the anti-social behaviour dialogue and the respect agenda you could not find.

Fourth, the underclass problem is essentially a resources allocation problem and as such:

Fifth, it tends to be supported by those who wish to constrain the redistributive potential of the welfare state and it has thus always been part of a broader conservative view of the aetiology of social problems and their correct solutions.

Although written over 20 years ago I think the article describes perfectly the point at which we have arrived and that underpins New Labour's social justice and criminal justice thinking because, put simply, the Government is unable to find another answer to the question 'Why if we have done so much for the socially excluded are they still behaving so badly?'

I will make three short points to conclude

Three facts have come onto my policy radar recently; these are not the result of a systematic literature review or a meta-analysis - they are just points that I have found of interest.

The first is that despite 60 consecutive quarters of economic growth (that is the longest period of growth since 1701) the number of children living in poverty increased by 100,000 in the most recent annual figures that we have. Given that extended periods of growth always come to an end what do we think will happen to child poverty rates when there is a change in the economic cycle?

The second comes from a seminar that CCJS helped Ben Bowling organise in response to the Home Affairs Committee report on young black people and the criminal justice system - we held it on Tuesday 3rd July at King's College. There were around 70 people from a wide array of organisations and policy positions and there were lots really interesting debate. Because I am not a criminologist what I did not know is that the number of black people, predominantly young black men in prison has risen from 4,000 to 12,000 in the last twenty years. It rose from 4,000 to 7,000 from 1985 to 1997 and then another 5,000 since 1997.

The third is a quote from Danny Dorling in a recent essay for Compass, and I quote:

'apart from two "blips", the gap in infant mortality rates between manual and middle class families has relentlessly grown (the period he is writing about is since 1998). The growth of the gap in the survival chances of infants born to working class parents and infants born to middle class parents reflects well the growth of the gap between the material living standards of their parents and prospective parents.'

He goes on:

'It is important to note that the government's decision to differentiate non-working individuals without children from those with children in the welfare and benefit system has led to many infants being born to parents without the means to care for themselves during pregnancy, or properly for their child after birth. Tax credits, child and other benefits associated with having children kick in too slowly for most of these children who die so soon after birth.'

He ends

'There is a correlation between that financial punishment and the rising relative numbers of dead bodies of poor infants under New Labour.'

According to Dorling's work the infant mortality inequality gap fell to 12% in 1998 but rose to reach 18% in 2004.

For sure we seem to be living in an increasingly harmful society but I am unsure as to what contribution Labour criminal justice policies can make to reducing that harm.

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