Can David Cameron unleash his inner Maoism?

Published in The Guardian (June 29th, 2012)

The headlines are clear: the nasty party is back in business. After David Cameron revealed his desire for a tougher, more time-limited benefits system, there were predictable howls of outrage from the left. So much for compassionate conservatism, they fumed, when this prosperous prime minister proposes to dismantle state safety nets.

Their anger exposed only the stifling complacency that dogs public discourse. Britain’s welfare state fails the poorest pupils, lets down long-term patients and leaves entire communities to fester on the dole – but remains a sacrosanct and untouchable institution in the eyes of many.

Naked politics lay behind Monday’s kite-flying, of course – the hurling of red meat to Tory rightwingers infuriated by issues such as Lords reform. But while hastily cobbled together, like too many recent coalition policies, the speech on benefits could mark the moment Cameron accidentally rediscovered his narrative of compassionate conservatism.

The much-mocked and half-cocked modernisation of the Tory party had two key strands. The first was to prove it could be trusted on public services, a strategy holed by the hapless health reforms. The second was to defuse the idea that Tories defend only the rich, undermined so spectacularly by the budget with its top-rate tax cut and consequent crash in the polls.

Underlying both strands was a serious, if poorly stated, vision that became tangled up with the “big society”. This was reshaping the welfare state so that instead of serving the middle classes efficiently while often failing the poorest in society, as it has done for decades, it was recalibrated to focus on those most in need. The same motivation drove the later years of the Blair government, so many key coalition reforms built on New Labour foundations.

This can be seen in school policies, tackling an inequitable system that allows wealthy parents to buy into the best catchment areas while poorer kids are stuck in sink schools. It can be seen in criminal justice reforms, tentatively taking on scandalous state failure in which offenders are locked in a cycle of crime and prison. It can be seen even in the health reforms, using competition to create better services in an ageing society.

Sadly, the ‘Maoist’ mission that drove the coalition in its early months foundered after crashing against the inertia of the civil service and the realities of government, especially one involving two increasingly fractious partners (or three, if you include the self-harming Tory right). Since the budget fiasco, any sense of strategy disappeared amid a welter of U-turns and a desperate search for decent headlines.

Two recent events offer a rock to rebuild on. First, the leaking of Michael Gove’s bid to reinvigorate school exams. Gove remains a restless reformer, shaped by his background and determined to raise school standards. “I didn’t come into parliament to defend the status quo,” he told the Commons this week. Presumably the unexpected emergence of his radical proposals reflected frustration at seeing previous bold plans crunched by the coalition policy machine.

This was followed by Cameron’s verbal assault on the sense of entitlement engendered by some benefits. He was right to raise such issues, an attempt to provoke debate on the future shape of a flawed system. Just as there is nothing rightwing about expecting everyone to have the chance of a challenging education, there is nothing compassionate about leaving 300,000 children to be raised in households in which nobody has worked – each one more likely to never get a job, fulfil their potential and suffer depression as a consequence. In the US, after all, it was not hardhearted Republicans but the Clinton administration that started time-limiting benefits.

All western societies must grapple with such questions of fairness and cost. As family incomes are squeezed and public debt soars, appropriate levels of housing benefit and the right of residents on six-figure salaries to remain in social housing are fundamental issues. I struggle with the concept of a state forcing children to live with their parents until the age of they are 25, while protected perks for better-off pensioners must now come into play. But the benefits system sends signals to society – and true progressives should not shy away from difficult questions.

The PM is a pragmatist who dislikes grandiose visions. But to have any hope of outright victory at the next election his government needs a narrative beyond cuts and fiscal responsibility. It mishandled disability benefits reform and must not make the same mistakes again, nor draw the wrong lessons from these moves. Cameron has stumbled on the chance to recharge his central mission. For the sake of the poor as well as his party, he must not blow it.

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