The new 'champion of progressive ideals'? Cameron's Conservative Party: poverty, family policy and welfare reform.

Author:Lister, Ruth
Position:David Cameron

It is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today ... If you care about poverty, if you care about inequality ... forget about the Labour Party ... If you count yourself a progressive, a true progressive, only we can achieve real change. (Cameron, 2008b)

In this cheeky piece of political cross-dressing, David Cameron gave notice that he intended to move his troops firmly on to Labour political territory. He underlined the centrality of the issues of poverty and inequality to the new Conservative agenda. In the same piece he wrote that social justice was one of the 'priorities for the modern Conservative Party'.

In this article we explore this apparent revolution in modern Conservative Party thinking and how Cameron's Conservatives have identified poverty, in particular, as a major problem to be addressed by 'true progressives'. We then analyse their diagnosis of the problem and their prescription for change, based on statements and policy documents available at the time of writing (early March 2010).

Recognition of the problem: the rehabilitation of the 'p' and 'i' words

Considerable credit for the recognition of poverty as a problem, and one with which the modern Conservative Party must engage, lies with its former leader, Iain Duncan Smith. During a visit to Glasgow's Easterhouse in 2002, Duncan Smith underwent a Damascene awakening when, he explained, he first understood 'the sheer desperation of the lives of people on society's margins' (Brindle, 2006; see also Derbyshire, 2010).

When he was replaced as leader, Duncan Smith established the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), with a number of members of the Conservative front bench on its advisory board. Its Executive Director, Philippa Stroud, describes the CSJ as the 'heartbeat and conscience' of the Tory party (Gentleman, 2009). The CSJ has hosted the Social Justice Policy Group (SJPG), chaired by Duncan Smith, which was commissioned by David Cameron 'to make policy recommendations to the Conservative Party on issues of social justice' (SJPG, 2006a, 2). This resulted in two reports: Breakdown Britain (2006a) and Breakthrough Britain (2007). In his 2009 party conference speech, Cameron praised Duncan Smith as 'the man who has dedicated himself to the cause of social justice' and announced that, if the Conservatives were to win the election, he would be given responsibility 'for bringing together all our work to help mend the broken society' (Cameron, 2009a) (1).

The clearest statement of the Tories' rethinking on poverty can be found in one of the 'state of the nation' reports summarised in Breakdown Britain. It was drawn up by the Economic Failure and Welfare Dependency Working Group chaired by Greg Clark MP. Despite its title, Economic Dependency (of which more later), the report explicitly distances Conservative thinking from a number of key tenets of the Thatcher years. Duncan Smith observes in his foreword,

In modern times, poverty has been a difficult issue for the Conservative Party to deal with. However, as this Report makes clear, it is too important an issue to be left to the Labour Party. All forms of poverty--absolute and relative--must be dealt with. (SJPG, 2006b, 3) The report itself explicitly embraces a relative definition of poverty:

We should now say explicitly: Poverty must be defined in relation to changing social norms. We should reject completely the notion that poverty can be defined in absolute terms alone. Relative poverty matters because it separates the poor from the mainstream of society. (SJPG, 2006b, 6) And it quotes senior Conservative Oliver Letwin's acceptance, in 2005, that 'Of course, inequality matters. Of course, it should be an aim to narrow the gap between rich and poor' (SJPG, 2006b, 6).

David Cameron himself has referred frequently to poverty and, to a lesser extent, social justice and inequality in his pronouncements. An early example is his Scarman Lecture, in which he called poverty 'an economic waste and a moral disgrace'. Echoing the SJPG, he explained that

we need to think of poverty in relative terms--the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted. So I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty. (Cameron, 2006) The following year, in a speech entitled 'Making British Poverty History' he declared, 'let us be clear: fighting poverty is one of the most fundamental of aspirations'. However, in a passage which was more redolent of an absolute than relative understanding of poverty, and which ignored the implications for inequality completely, he went on to say: 'we must help the haves to have more, yes we must back the aspirations of our over-taxed, over-burdened middle classes ... but a modern aspiration agenda means helping the have-nots to have something' (Cameron, 2007).

More recently, in his Hugo Young lecture, Cameron allied the Conservative Party with 'the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and injustice'. Citing The Spirit Level (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009), he said that 'we all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it.' He finished with the claim that 'the Conservatives, not Labour, are best placed to fight poverty in our country' (Cameron, 2009b).

This is all a far cry from the Thatcher years when inequality was lauded in the name of economic progress, social justice was deemed philosophically meaningless and illegitimate and, according to Social Security Secretary, John Moore, we had reached 'the end of the line for poverty'. Moore's thesis, in his infamous 1989 speech, was that absolute poverty was as good as vanquished and that relative poverty was 'in reality simply inequality', espoused as a concept by those on the left in order to condemn capitalism. Interestingly the SJPG and Cameron himself have both explicitly distanced themselves from Moore's thesis: 'John Moore was wrong to declare the end of poverty ... Poverty is relative--and those who pretend otherwise are wrong. This has consequences for Conservative thinking' (Cameron, 2006).

Reasons to be sceptical

It is important to acknowledge the significance of the Tories' new-found commitment to tackling poverty and inequality. It is the more remarkable that Cameron has felt the need to compete with Labour on this territory when attitude surveys suggest that public opinion has grown less sympathetic towards government action to combat poverty and inequality. (This possibly reflects New Labour's own ambivalence towards redistribution and often punitive discourse with reference to welfare reform.) Campaigners no longer have to convince the Conservatives that poverty and inequality are problems. However, there are at least three reasons to be sceptical as to whether we can now hope for effective action.

The first concerns the refusal to take responsibility for what happened during the Thatcher years. Having dismissed Moore's stance, the SJPG does not hide the fact that 'relative poverty rates ... grew rapidly during the 1980s' (SJPG, 2006b, 5). However, it manages to avoid paying any attention to the role played by government social, fiscal and economic policies in the increase in poverty and inequality during that period. The most it is prepared to concede is that 'it would be wrong to deny that mistakes were made in response to the challenge' of rising poverty and inequality (SJPG, 2006b, 6).

Worse still, when lambasting Labour, Cameron conveniently ignores what happened in the 1980s. Thus, in his Hugo Young Lecture, he traced the twentieth century trend in poverty up until the late 1960s and then jumped to post-1997 (Cameron, 2009b). At this point, he drew attention to widening inequality and in particular to an increase in the numbers in severe poverty and how this group had got poorer under Labour. In his party conference speech, he asked rhetorically 'Who made the poorest poorer? ... Who made inequality greater? No, not the wicked Tories ... you, Labour: you're the ones that did this to our society' (Cameron, 2009a). The point is reinforced by the recent Conservative document, Labour's Two Nations. This sets out evidence, which, it claims 'proves that Britain is once more divided into two nations' (Conservative Party, 2010c, 6; emphasis added).

Now we are not apologists for Labour's disappointing record on poverty--notwithstanding its welcome commitment to the eradication of child poverty--or its dismal performance on inequality. But Cameron's taunt is breathtaking in its selective and misleading reading of recent history. Actually, Mr Cameron, it is 'the wicked Tories' who 'did this to our society'. To the extent that governments can be held responsible for adverse trends in poverty and inequality--either through policies of commission (such as economic policies, which increase unemployment, and highly regressive changes to the tax-benefit system) or of omission (failure to combat underlying distributional trends)--the Conservatives were responsible for the record levels of poverty and inequality in the 'two nations' inherited by New Labour. Even though the subsequent record on inequality shames New Labour, the National Equality Panel explains how 'reforms since 1997 have tended to reduce income inequality, while those in the earlier period tended to increase it' (National Equality Panel, 2010, 399). By focusing on the very poorest--even though the Institute for Fiscal Studies has cast doubt on the robustness of these data--the Conservatives offer a distorted picture of Labour's record. They also draw attention away from how real incomes after housing costs fell for the bottom decile by 13 per cent between 1979 and 1993/4 while they rose by 65 per cent for the top decile.

In reminding readers of the Conservatives' record when last in power, we are not...

To continue reading