Page last updated at 16:12 GMT, Monday, 18 August 2008 17:12 UK

Is Cameron the Blair of social reform?

Analysis
By Brian Wheeler
Politics reporter, BBC News

"Look at the wreckage of our broken society. See Britain through the eyes of our children. Are we really proud of our society today?"

Tony Blair
Tony Blair promised a country reborn in 1995

That was the question posed by a charismatic young leader, seeking to fire up a party battered by long years in opposition but starting, finally, to feel like it was on the road back to power.

Many of the ideas championed by Tony Blair in his 1995 conference speech - from the "stakeholder society" to "a new moral purpose for our nation" - have long since faded from view in British politics, along with Mr Blair himself.

So what makes David Cameron think his ideas on fixing Britain's "broken society" will stand any more chance of success?

Opposition parties will always try to persuade voters that the country is going to pieces and that only they have the solution. They also like to sound more in tune with voters' fears than the government.

For Tony Blair it was the Jamie Bulger case, the murder of the toddler by two 10-year-old boys, symbolising, for him, all that had gone wrong with society under the Conservatives.

Falling crime rate

For Mr Cameron, it is the "epidemic" of knife crime currently dominating the headlines that has provided the backdrop to his attacks on Labour's record - and his bold forays into traditional Labour ground.

Labour is proud of its record in social policy.

Far from being broken, it likes to talk about a Britain where millions more have jobs, parents have more rights at work, there is less discrimination against minorities and the life chances of disadvantaged children have been transformed by Sure Start.

Brixton riots
The social unrest of the Thatcher years is fading from voters' memories

But many of the deeper social problems Mr Blair spoke about in his 1995 party conference speech - "drugs, violence, youngsters hanging around on street corners with nothing to do" - are still very much with us.

However much his successor, Gordon Brown, tries to convince us with statistics - that the crime rate is falling, that millions of children have been "lifted out of poverty" - it still feels to many voters as if something is wrong. That something is in need of "fixing".

Which is, presumably, one reason why Mr Cameron has decided to make social reform his big idea.

He may avoid the messianic tone of Blair circa 1995, who promised nothing less than a country reborn (he has since acknowledged the possibility that he may have "over-promised").

Social problems

But Mr Cameron is promising major changes - "to be as radical a social reformer as Mrs Thatcher was an economic reformer".

But unlike Mr Blair - who pledged to rebuild "civic society" and use the power of the state to transform individual lives - Mr Cameron believes the answer lies in the state doing less.

Labour is undoubtedly irked by Mr Cameron's incursion on to what it sees as its home turf

A Cameron government would try to bolster the family and promote marriage through tax breaks - but it would also be likely to dismantle much of the bureaucracy that has grown up around social policy under Labour.

Central government - far from knowing best about how to tackle deep-rooted social problems - often does more harm than good with its meddling, targets and box-ticking, the thinking goes.

More faith will be placed in the efforts of volunteers and church groups and on individual responsibility.

In that sense, it is a very Thatcherite vision.

And Labour will attack it as such, invoking memories of Thatcher era social strife and division - and accusing the Conservatives of leaving a key policy area to the vagaries of the market.

Labour is undoubtedly irked by Mr Cameron's incursion on to what it sees as its home turf.

It also senses that if Mr Cameron chooses to make social reform the centrepiece of his general election campaign, it will have a decent target to aim at.

But after what will then likely be 12 or 13 years of a Labour government, and with the "Tory cuts" and social unrest of the Thatcher years a fast-fading memory for many voters, will anyone be listening?


Fascinating to hear the Tories talking socialism! The snag is that they're going to sort it all out using their old "non-intervention" dogma - that if the State does (i.e. spends) less, we'll get more. Why can't I find a politician who either a) thinks as I do, that if you want to improve a thing, you generally have to put some energy or money into it? Or, b) can explain clearly and objectively why this is not the case?
Arthur Priest, Leicester England

I can't believe it as I type these words, but, Cameron is right. Society is broken. The very notion that Cameron can solve the problems through deregulation is preposterous. Social problems stem from underlying problems that philosophers, theorists and politicians have failed to resolve; issues such as poverty. Class plays a pivotal role in our society; arbitrary contingencies dictate the problems in our society. Until we address the underlying issues, which requires radicalism, history will perpetually bring the same problem back.
Daniel Renwick, London

I don't think crime is caused by poverty, it's caused by two things. Boredom, and lack of knowledge. People vandalise places when they are in large groups and bored. Smart people would find something entertaining, without having to break something that is not theirs. People also break into houses and steal because they are uneducated and unqualified because they left school way too early. Unemployment may also have something to do here, but unemployment levels aren't exceedingly high.
Aaron, Kent England

Labour have put plenty of money and energy towards improving society. Same problems still exist. With good social leadership, society can change. Despite all the talk, this has not happened yet.
Jolyon Smith, Nottingham

We need the working classes to do the jobs nobody else will do. Thats the ugly truth of why the poorest in society will never be educated or helped too much.
James Harper, Stevenage

Cameron is perfectly correct to identify family issues as the primary cause of social malfunction. However, I think it is foolish to expect any politician to be able to fix it directly. Although in opposition, as the article says, what Cameron seems to be doing is to encourage individual responsibility. I can't help but think that is the right direction...
Paul Arnold, Ventnor, UK

During my own appalling childhood, we had Conservative governments, Labour governments, bureaucratic local authorities, laissez-faire local authorities, more influential clergymen, families and charities. None of these intervened to help me in my plight, and it seems to me nothing has changed over the years. I have lived in quite a few countries, and I think certain parts of Britain are very poor places for children to grow up, although there are also some neglected and mistreated children in affluent homes. The problem is not politics; it is our attitude towards children and each other. The British are simply greedier and more self-centred than so many others are.
Alan Obinson, Bjerreby, Denmark

The core reason behind youth crime is lack of parental care and discipline. And the core reason behind that is not parents who don't care but parents who are so busy working hard to pay mortgages and bills (even before the current problems) that they simply don't have the time or energy to put into decent parenting. I'm not criticising, I'm at fault too. Do these politicians really think they know what the root causes are? Or are they just scared of admitting it because they can't think of an easy fix that the electorate will accept? I thought Cameron was going to be a breath of fresh air and bring real solutions in that he believed in. Unfortunately it hasn't taken long for him to be reduced to easy and pathetic mud-slinging and ignore the difficult task of identifying real issues and actually trying to find some answers.
Richard Moore, Brighton

Isn't it about time politicians began confronting and mending the very issues at the core of our 'broken society' such as radically transforming the image and income of full-time mothers, our awful work ethic, the straitjacket of modern education and the ease with which the media can bombard us with constant negative news and images, then we will be more able to look after our young with the help of our more caring families, neighbours and friends. Surely if politicians tackled the real issues sensitively and intelligently, there would no longer be any need for party politics? Or maybe that's what stops them...
Sarah Egerton, Nantwich, England

The state did not create anything worthwhile I can remember during my lifetime. The state has reorganised many existing industries, built from "commercial" investments - such as railways, electricity generation, gas supply, transport, etc. sometimes with disastrous effect. The medical provision to deliver a National Health Service (in my view a good achievement, but marred by massive government intervention) was originated from private sources. Energy and state spending are not equivalent. The state did not develop organisations like the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, athletics clubs, etc. In fact, over recent years, the state has errected barriers to participation by imposing checks on everyone who wants to help develop young talents of any sort. And sold off the playing fields where young people could express their physical selves. Let the state allow people with enough disposable income give money to "non-State" organisations and gain a positive tax-credit - not just tax relief. Then get the state out of the way.
Chris King, Fleet, Hampshire




SEE ALSO
Cameron book: key quotes
18 Aug 08 |  UK Politics
Cameron not rejecting tax rises
20 Jul 08 |  UK Politics
Youth crime plan targets families
15 Jul 08 |  UK Politics
Jail knife carriers, says Cameron
07 Jul 08 |  UK Politics
Cameron focuses on 'social decay'
07 Jul 08 |  Scotland


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