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The Conservative Party and Social Policy


Edited by Hugh Bochel


Bristol: The Policy Press, 2011

Paperback. vii+326 pp. ISBN 978-1847424327. £23.99


Reviewed by Pat Thane

Kings College London


This book, published when Britain's Conservative-led Coalition government had been in office for one year and evidently written during its first months in office, aims to examine the formation and content of Conservative approaches to social policy as they entered government in the context of their development since 1945, and especially since the election of Margaret Thatcher’s majority Conservative government in 1979.

As the editor points out in his introductory chapter, Mrs Thatcher left the Conservative Party more openly ideologically driven than ever before. Her legacy was still evident at the time of the 2001 election, after four years of Labour government, when the Conservatives promised a smaller state, ‘welfare without the state’, support for the family, tax cuts, the freeing of schools from local control, tougher crime policies but increased expenditure on the National Health Service, which was known to be particularly popular with voters.

In 2005 David Cameron, the present Prime Minister, became party leader. He set out to distance himself from the party’s ‘nasty’ image, presenting what became known as ‘compassionate Conservatism’, incorporating the more benign elements of the 2001 manifesto. However, as Bochel points out, he had been responsible for the party’s equally hard-line 2005 manifesto and the early years of his leadership were notably ‘policy-lite’: plenty of general statements, not much substance. Towards 2010 these took the form of references to ‘Broken Britain’, to be mended by supporting the family and marriage perhaps through tax incentives, by discouraging dependency on welfare benefits and encouraging work, and supporting ‘community involvement’ in tackling social deprivation, replacing the Big Welfare State (identified with Labour) with something called the ‘Big Society’, which seemed to mean encouraging voluntary social welfare, though no-one was quite sure. When the Conservatives entered government in 2010, in coalition with the Liberal-Democrats, having failed to secure a majority on their own despite the economic crisis and Labour’s unpopularity, their social policies still lacked substance, as most essays in this volume show.

Chapters by Page and Ellison usefully survey Conservative policies on, first, the welfare state, then public expenditure since 1945. Both make clear that, although generally inclined to prefer market to state provision and less public expenditure rather than more, until the 1980s the Conservatives held back from severe change to a welfare state which was popular and felt to be beneficial by most voters, especially the National Health Service. By the 1980s, Thatcher believed that more people could afford to do without state welfare and pushed the stronger neo-liberal agenda that was then internationally fashionable. Her government cut social security benefits and sold council houses, though even she held back from wholesale privatisation of the popular health service. And, though the state was ‘rolled back’ in some respects as the government promised, in others central control was stricter. Meanwhile socio-economic inequality began to widen, having narrowed since 1945.

It continued to widen through the thirteen years of Labour government that followed from 1997, mainly because incomes at the top rose uncontrolled. For those at the bottom, Labour did far more to reduce poverty, increase employment and repair the real damage to the health services and education wreaked by Conservative cuts than it was always willing to admit for fear of scaring off the voters of ‘Middle England’. Throughout its history, Labour has preferred work to welfare for those capable of work and its policies supported this approach, successfully supporting men and women of all ages into work or training. It continued Conservative policies of encouraging voluntary action, private sector involvement in health and social care and means-tested rather than universal benefits. It did least to rectify a seriously dysfunctional housing market, but it did much to sustain the framework of a recognisable welfare state, which, as Defty’s chapter in this volume on public opinion shows, remained generally popular.

On the surface, Coalition social policies when they entered office in 2010, so far as they could be discerned, had much in common with Labour’s. Eight chapters of the volume survey specific areas of social policy as they emerged in the first months of the new government, all of them influenced more by the Conservatives than by their partners. The authors did not have an easy task because so much was vague and incoherent and so much was hastily changed when it proved impracticable or very unpopular. What soon became clear was the determination of the Treasury to cut public expenditure severely. As Ellison puts it, they ‘managed to transform what was originally a private sector banking crisis into a crisis of the public sector’. This was used to justify cuts to local government funding and to a wide range of welfare benefits and shifting services into the voluntary or, more often, the private market sectors. It is still clearer in 2012 than when the book was written that the Conservatives moved much faster in these directions than Thatcher dared in the 1980s, and were less constrained by their Liberal-Democrat partners than some of the authors hoped when they wrote. Baggott’s chapter on health policy concludes on a note of shock, which was widely shared including in the medical profession, as it was becoming clear in autumn 2010 that the government intended far more extreme reform and involvement of ‘private providers’ in the health service than was evident from Cameron’s bland assurances during the election that he would safeguard the National Health Service.

Some authors in the volume constrain their shock and horror at the policies more strictly than others. Exley and Ball, of the London University Institute of Education, can hardly contain their loathing of an education policy which is transferring funding from state to ‘free’ schools established by parents and others, amid rhetoric about increasing freedom of choice and diminishing inequality; policies, as the authors put it ‘based more on gut instinct than weight of evidence’ indeed all too often flying in the face of contrary evidence. Here as elsewhere, coalition policy was taking much further, faster in more damaging ways, Labour policies of reducing local authority involvement in school education. The authors fear that ‘we may well be at the beginning of the end of state education’. They say little about universities, where, again, the coalition has taken Labour policy much further by sharply raising the fees introduced by Labour and cutting funding, while encouraging private institutions more enthusiastically than Thatcher’s cautious experiment with the University of Buckingham.

Other authors are more cautious, perhaps afraid of appearing biased, though the distaste of most of them is hard to disguise as they describe the likely divisive effects of policies as they were emerging in late 2010. Somerville rightly points out that council (or as it is now known ‘social’) housing has since the 1980s increasingly become the ghettoised repository for poor people with severe problems, and current policies seem designed only to make this worse by proposing incentives for less problematic tenants to leave, while encouraging little new building of ‘affordable’ homes for poorer people and scrapping Labour plans for much-needed regulation of the private rented sector (in place from 1915 until abolished in the 1980s). The government’s only evident housing strategy is to encourage owner-occupation and stigmatise other forms of occupancy.

McKay and Rowlingson rightly point out that the language of the government has stigmatised social welfare benefits as never before since 1945. ‘Welfare’, not long ago a benign word in British usage, has become the pejorative term it has long been in the U.S., and recipients of benefits are increasingly represented as lazy, dependent scroungers, too idle to work, culpable even when they are severely disabled, have caring responsibilities for disabled or older people or small children, or there is no work to be had, as Deacon and Patrick describe. Only those in paid work are represented as good citizens. In many respects the government is continuing Labour ‘welfare to work’ policies, under new names, but more punitively and unforgivingly at a time when work is much scarcer.

And so it goes on. Things have only got worse. Severely disabled people have lost the insurance benefits which have been a right since 1946. Cuts to housing benefits make it impossible for lone parents and large numbers of older and disabled people to afford rents in London and much of south-eastern England, forcing them to move to places where there is even less work and poorer services and they know no-one. Someday this book will have to be updated but it is a depressing prospect.


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