It was the Tories that broke Britain

by Kevin Meagher

What was Labour’s problem with the concept of “broken Britain”?

The weekend before last, Tony Blair became the latest Labour voice to scoff at the “high-faluting wail” about a country that has “lost its way”.

Granted, the offending phrase is the offspring of David Cameron, and his erstwhile chums at News International, so comes preloaded to cause disdain to some on the left.

But we, too, used to believe Britain was broken. We used to endlessly criticise the “divided society” of “haves and have-nots” created in the 80s and 90s.

We were right to do so. This Britain was definitely broken when we took over in 1997. No question. We made a good start in fixing it: the minimum wage, tax credits, child benefit rises and investment in public services. Things, to coin a phrase, could only get better.

By 2001 our election slogan was “a lot done, a lot to do”. We recognised that there was still a mountain to climb in piecing our broken society back together. The legacy of 18 years of Conservative rule, was that whole communities and parts of the country had been reduced to a tightly-wound ball of social and economic problems that did not unpick easily.

We always knew that some of the issues affecting towns and cities that used to have mills, mines and manufacturing were deeply ingrained. The shock therapy of early Thatcherism, with its jobs-shedding and deindustrialisation, did not lend itself to easy remedies.

But we were heading in the right direction. The number of children being brought up in poverty started to decrease. Pensioners were becoming better off. The economy continued to grow. We wanted a mandate to continue chipping away at the problems. So in 2005, our message to voters was, “if you value it, vote for it”.

Our entire political narrative throughout this time eschewed complacency. We had not built the New Jerusalem just yet. Keep the faith. But somewhere along the way that message changed. At some point after the election of David Cameron in 2005 we seemed to become the “everything is fine” party.

It happened by default. I don’t ever recall a Labour slogan claiming “mission accomplished” in terms of curing all of the social problems we inherited. The “have-nots” did not disappear overnight. We just seemed to stop talking about them. As the Tories clambered onto our traditional ground – mouthing concerns about the state of our society – we inched off it. We emphasised the positives about Britain instead; resenting Cameron’s middle England dog-whistle when he sermonised about how broken the country was.

We even got Eddie Izzard to front a party broadcast before the last general election, taking issue with the very concept of Cameron’s attack. “Britain is bloody brilliant”, he said. “I take great offence that the Tories are slagging off Britain saying it’s broken”.

But we should have said to Cameron, “yes, mate, parts of Britain are still broken – and your lot broke them”.

We should have challenged him to come up with workable remedies for the deep-rooted and intertwined economic and social problems we have, which seem to be impervious to a battery of policy responses.

We should have taken the Tories at their word and sought consensus around what characterises a good society and, crucially, how we fund building it. If they were serious, great. If not, expose their vacuity.

But we didn’t. Unwilling to concede that not every corner of the land had been miraculously transformed under Labour, we seemed to challenge the very basis of Cameron’s assertion that social problems existed.

In not fighting him for this territory, we gifted him the market in glib bromides. He understands Gramsci’s dictum that if you control the language, you control the debate. His dilettante interest in social inequalities has been useful verbal disinfectant for the job of decontaminating the Tory brand.

As a result Labour is left in limbo. On the one hand we have a society afflicted with deep social problems. On the other, we dare not enter discussion about root causes and remedies beyond reciting the mantras of our massive previous investments while in government – leaving Cameron and Iain Duncan-Smith to frame the discussion.

The strange law of politics is that complex problems often generate simplistic solutions. Cameron’s new catch-all is that we face a “moral crisis”. The recent riots summed up in another two-word panacea.

The policy responses – and hard cash – needed to deal with society’s underlying problems are breezily skipped over and reduced to Tory ministers and their advisers “adopting” families blighted with generational unemployment in order to offer one-to-one support and shake them out of their “fecklessness”.

The Tories’ “small platoons” evangelism will quickly pass. This sight of pin-striped Tory ministers posing awkwardly with Frank Gallagher and his clan will run into the ground when no-one is looking. Tellingly, employment minister Chris Grayling, who was linked with the move, feigned a total lack of knowledge when quizzed.

The goal is open. Yet Labour hesitates.

Wearied by 13 long years of initiatives, announcements and pilot studies, we know that well-meaning responses on the hoof and a slug of frenetic policy-making are usually bogus.

We also know that public spending cuts will exacerbate crime, poverty and community tensions. Yet we dare not say so. To do so would walk into a Tory trap. We can’t fight for the nation’s soul on the grounds that public spending provides a magic bullet, we remind ourselves. That is old New Labour statism.

But we dare not fight it on more opaque grounds either. The left, it appears, does not “do” morality. We have a problem with personal responsibility. Good behaviour. Punitive sanctions.

We need a new message; one that seeks a better balance between state action and personal responsibility. An acceptance that despite the party’s best endeavours in government, there are some problems that money alone will not fix. We cannot run the lives of every problem family in the land. Society needs a bigger role. The state cannot pick up the pieces every time.

Tough meat for some to digest; so we choose not to serve it up. For now, we are in a holding pattern, calling for a “national conversation” about post-riots Britain instead.

To be sure, the discourse will be loud and brief while the public mood is one notch short of a lynch mob.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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14 Responses to “It was the Tories that broke Britain”

  1. tokyo nambu says:

    Labour is completely stuffed on this topic. Because it is unwilling to admit that there is a single social problem that cannot be solved with money, and it refuses to ascribe moral agency to the working classes (thereby insulting the 99% of its electoral base who live respectable lives in order to pander to the 1% who don’t, but who also don’t vote), it is holed below the waterline. Thirteen years in office didn’t, and couldn’t, solve the social problems left by de-industrialisation, but because (as Kevin says) the sheer scale of this task was forgotten in amongst Brown’s triumphalism, it’s a topic Labour will find it difficult to return to. Meanwhile, middle-class paternalists who think that anti-social behaviour is the natural state of the working class, and therefore than it’s not reasonable to expect people to do better (a class equivalent to the racism of low expectations) try to curry favour with a small, disruptive element who don’t vote, while offending the vast majority of the population.

    Why is “the 99.99% of people who didn’t riot are better people than the 0.01% who did” seen to be bad politics? Why is siding with looters seen as a winning electoral strategy?

  2. Nick says:

    Tell you what. I think I can improve my lot. Send me your credit card details, name, address and that security code thingy on the back. I’ll go out and spend a lot of money, and I’ll no doubt be better off.

    It’s a great idea. No problems at all are there.

    After all you’re going to be left with the debt. I’m not.

    That’s the problem. You’ve gone on such a splurge with other people’s money and quite frankly pissed it up the wall. You’ve been the irresponsible party.

    Now, without any sense of hypocrisy, you’re advocating personal responsibility – for others.

    What the Tories have to take blame for now, is carrying on with the lie.

    Most people in this country think the government owes them their state pension for their contributes. That the government has a debt to them for all that money. Not the government. Not Labour, Tories or the yellow lot. It’s not on the books. Even with PFI we know what the numbers are, but not the state pension, state second pension, the really big numbers. Hidden.

    Even for the civil service pension, they might calculate a number once in a while using the basic fraud of assuming they have AA bonds, and that companies never ever go bust.

    The problem is now because of the mess of your causing (there is no money left after all), that people won’t be allowed to take personal responsibility and self insure because you want the cash. Governments are desperate for it. So no tax cuts to enable people to be responsible. It’s all going on debt payments and politicians expenses etc

    That’s it. That’s going to be the driving force for everything. You caused it and the very people you purported to want to help whilst helping yourselves to ooudles of cash, and the ones who are going to be hit.

  3. Jane says:

    I feel very disheartened at reading this. Somehow, there is no acknowledgement of things that went wrong over a thirteen year period. It is so much easier to blame the opposing political party for their period in government which ended in 1997. Investment in public services is one area where money was used without reform never mind the ghastly PFI deals (keep this debt off the books) which we are now paying for. Education was well resourced yet all studies suggest that we still have a huge proportion of our young people leaving school illiterate and that this has increased. These are the youngsters that have been educated under Labour. As to generational unemployment – surely you should blame the last government for encouraging a dependancy culture? In my area over the past decade we have to rely on economic migrants to undertake unskilled jobs in the food industry that at one time local people did. All interviews with local people suggest that they do not need to work as they can live quite reasonably on welfare benefits. Who created this culture of lack of personal responsibility and that the State would provide?

    Public spending cuts are necessary – you know this. Another area of huge public spending is the Criminal Justice System with ever increasing legal aid, police and prison budgets, lawyers fees etc etc. Crime has apparently fallen. We have provided the police with above average inflation budgets with lower crime and a raft of measures such as fixed penalty notices, street cautions etc etc. Yet detection rates have not improved and the Winsor report clearly indicates that the police service seriously requires changing because of outdated employment practices and with managements hands tied because of employer/employee agreements. The Home Affairs Report on Policing during the last government is also worth reading and would support these assertions. Why should crime increase by using resources more efficiently? We now have more police in the community because of better use of resources.
    In my area, we have got rid of many higher posts in the county council – you know the ones that earn a fortune. The last government did not control salaries of public sector managers. We have reorganised services and targetted those most in need. Funny what highly paid managers can do when they have to behave like a private company in living within ones budgets. We have had examples of what happened in our major cities in recent days with looting. These same communities that have had millions of pounds thrown at them over the past decade. What good has all this expenditure done?

    I despair of this blame game. The last government created an awful lot of difficulties and certainly left the coalition government with severe problems to deal with. The number of issues that were shelved – or should I say put out for reports – prisoners voting etc etc. In addition if one looks at public expenditure over the past decade we continually spent more than we could afford. The structural deficit continued to rise as a result of political decision making – never mind the world economic crisis. This is what the current government has to deal with and you fail to acknowledge the part Labour played in this.

    Of course morality does matter and having listened to some young people involved in the recent rioting, many failed to acknowledge the difference between right and wrong behaviour. So much easier to blame policy. Some MPs are doing this too – the public will never accept that looting or rioting is as a a result of spending cuts or removal of some universal benefits. At a time of ecomonic strain, I would rather that limited resources were used for those most in need. My community have come together because of the crisis that we feel is facing the country. I would hope that community cohesion does not become a political football. If Labour wishes to govern again they will have to ensure that they state they are the party of all the people and not just those who are disadvantaged. I say this as a supporter of the party for some 45 years. Somehow, I am not optimistic.

  4. Robert says:

    The problem being New Labour was more Thatcherite then Labour, Blair was in fact the son of Thatcher he wanted to be seen as being more about middle England then working class something Miliband keeps telling us, Brown was just a bloke who wanted to be leader while throwing his dummy out of the pram.

    We were told benefits were to high so wages had to be the best way of working not by putting up wages but cutting benefits, yes New Labour the party of the richer.

    14 years of this crap was enough for me and now what do we have a Labour party attacking the Unions while demanding more donations, I’d not rejoin this bunch to save my life.

  5. swatantra says:

    I think Labour has to come clean and admit that there is a ‘broken society’; things are not good at all, and If this is the state of Britain today and the Party Leadership is happy with it, then frankly they are living on another planet.
    But the main premise is absolutely correct: it all stated to go off the rails in the 80’s under Mrs Thatcher and Reagan, and when Labour came in in 1997, there was very little they could do to reverse the trend, after 18 years out of power., when society and industry and global markets were collapsing around them. The Labour years wre indeed times of boom, because nobody expected the bust that was building up under the surface.

  6. Jane’s comments are most to my taste. We have a national emergency which neither main party is up to dealing with. Blaming each other won’t get us very far – we all conspired in the endless credit myth whilst it worked because it benefitted everyone in the short term. So where do we go now? We have to put together a new national leadership that draws on the best of all parties, institutions and movements and that listens to ordinary people. We need a national movement for renovation that can deal honestly with tough issues and make sensible, sustainable decisions about the use of our resources. Pie in the sky? Yes, like the events in Egypt and Libya until they happen. My experience of local organising is that the newspaper people read is an unreliable guide to their willingness to work with others to find solutions that benefit us all. Politically minded people in Britain are nervous about a deep conversation with ordinary people in case they propose unpalatable solutions. Sometimes they do – although probably less unpalatable than going to war in Iraq – but without a new engagement between the politically active and the mass of the people there is no hope for new ways forward. We are left in the hands of politicians, bankers and newspaper properietors who pursue their own interests and feed us half truths. As for the first steps towards that new movement, that new engagement, give me more time to think.

  7. barrie singleton says:

    Blair has always been driven by personal demons. His utterances are not of value.

  8. Lee says:

    All of the young rioters have been brought up under a Labour government where they were told they needn’t bother to study, that they wouldn’t be allowed to fail, that their teachers had no authority, that fathers are unnecessary, that working is ‘uncool’…and then they open their front doors and walk down the street

  9. Frederick James says:

    What tokyo nambu said – spot on.

  10. CS Clark says:

    Conservatives of all political parties says Britain is broken because they can only conceive of a past state that it can be returned to by fixing it. Which is why, amongst other things, it is necessary for them to be deliberately ignorant – in the manner of one who does their best to rmain ignorant – of all other street violence, ever.

    Liberals/progressives/not-conservatives don’t say Britain is broken, even if they can see many social ills of the present, even if they can say that a government of the far past was better than one of the near past, because they look to a future state where it is is made better, not mended. Britain can’t be broken because Britain is still being made, is always being made. Where conservatives think they can strip out moden ills and return to a pre-lapsarian state, not-conservatives believe in building on what it already good.

  11. Jim says:

    The sad, unavoidable truth is that *all* Labour governments end in economic disaster and mass unemployment.

    It’s lazy in the extreme to blame the legacy of Thatch for Labour’s failures. If the party was committed to, say, renationalisation, then it could have passed an enabling bill on 2 May 1997. Same with council housing, etc. Don’t say it couldn’t have been done – the banks were bailed out overnight.

    Here’s a thought – Germany was a pile of rubble (economic, social and financial) in May 1945 – yet 10 years later was transformed. Labour’s task in May 1997 was trivial in comparison. Yet it failed.

    That ‘all Thatcher’s fault’ ****’s getting old with electorate now.

    Ed Milliband is not, and never will be, Prime Minister, and I suspect most card carrying Labour members know this.

    He has said *nothing* about how he would behave differently – what taxes would raise or lower, what cuts would or would not be made, etc. The tired ‘too far, too fast’ mantra is a charade – a fantasy of what people would *like* but deep down, know isn’t going to work.

    What is *wrong* with Labour when it cannot find a single working class person in South Yorkshire to stand for election, and instead rely on a Londoner whose life is so far removed from the everyday experiences of Doncaster that he might as well come from Mars?

    The country needs a credibly centre-left party which represents the working class as an effective counterweight to the Tories. Labour is not that party, and probably never has been.

  12. Span Ows says:

    I read this article half expecting a raft of pathetic sycophantic ‘agreeing’ comments: imagine my surprise to find everyone questioning the logic and the content of the original article. Kevin Meagher, by saying “It was the Tories that broke Britain” fails to see that he is admitting the country is broken, thereby giving truth to what Cameron has said. Does Kevin believe Cameron is doing the right things to help mend “broken Britain”? And if not, what should he be doing?

  13. jimbo says:

    at what point will the Labour party stop blaming Thatcher for all that is wrong with Britain, and take a good hard look at the problems caused by 13 years of Brown’s gross economic mismanagement?

    The next election a significant number of 1st time voters *won’t have been alive* when she was in office.

  14. TonyBlair says:

    Labour destroyed Britain…every single Labour voter and their entire family should be dragged out onto the street and shot.
    Swamped with third world scroungers
    Smoking Ban
    Smacking Ban
    Free speech Ban
    Murder in the NHS
    War based on lies
    Ballot Rigging
    Children being put on a racist database
    Children being force fed homosexuality “is good”
    Common Purpose……Communist Party
    the list is endless…..I hope every Labour politician dies a f—–g painful death for the misery they have inflicted on Britain.

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