Broken Britain or broken politics?

Alexander Pannett 10.30am 

At the conference there were a variety of interesting fringe events but one that particularly caught my eye was a panel debate run by Respublica exploring post-liberalism.

The panel discussed whether “Broken Britain”, characterised by the recent 2008 financial crisis and 2011 riots, is suffering from a malaise brought on by the damaging consequences of social and economic liberalism.

As old traditions and social mores were challenged in the later half of the twentieth century, the social cohesion forged during the Second World War was torn apart by the rise of individualism.

Advances in society, such as improved gender and race relations, coupled with the economic unraveling of the post-war economic consensus initiated a revolutionary change as both society and economy were re-ordered around the individual.  This led to deep divisions between liberalism and conservatism that has had un-intended consequences.

Phillip Blond, director of the think tank Respublica, made the case that liberalism has destroyed the traditions of both Left and Right. Liberalism has caused the elite to become self-serving, absent of virtue. As an ideology, it does not engage with the values that matter to communities.

Certainly political parties have adopted contradictory policies as they have tilted their axis towards the individual. The Tories adopted economic liberalism but social conservatism whilst Labour favoured economic conservatism and social liberalism. Both sides failed to foresee the true revolutionary impact of liberalism on existing British communities and how it contrasted with conservative concepts of society.

For Jesse Norman, MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, freedom is the absence of fetter to the individual will. Liberalism therefore focuses on the present and the person.

Conservatism focuses not on the individual. The individual is subordinate to society. The social construct comes first. It is not for individuals or a particular generation to undermine society for their own gain.

Norman proposes a post-liberalist revival of conservatism through markets that are based on trust, custom and internal rules. The fusion of social capitalism and market theory is the future of conservatism.

David Goodhart, director of the think tank Demos, suggested that post-liberalism focuses socially on a return to strong morale intuition and patriotism, with skepticism towards large-scale immigration, integration and globalisation.

I agree with Goodhart that political parties have been dominated by a post-secular, mobile elite, which have interests that diverge from the rest of society. An example being when New Labour neglected the education of the lower half of the population due to their obsession with increasing the numbers attending higher education. A large part of the population is immobile and the cosmopolitan elite does not serve their needs.

But how should political parties tackle the ravages of liberalism, which has left the British feeling alienated and disconnected from each other?

Phillip Blond contends that a post-liberalist response should mean further economic support for the family to buffet against the radical challenge that liberalism poses. He sees the family as one of society’s most progressive social units, teaching humans the importance of social bonds and unconditional support at an early age. He also advocates the increased use of mutuals and other economic structures that promote a wider participation in the equity of community assets by the disadvantaged.

However, Goodhart does not believe that post-liberalism has a credible economic policy yet. In this Goodhart is unfortunately correct.

The insidious force behind liberalism is the unfettered movement of global capital. The ebb and flow of jobs and capital to the cheapest global locations of production has destabilised existing social and economic structures. It will take more than a hardening of divorce laws and a John Lewis economic model to roll back the malign effects of globalisation.

Whilst post-liberalism does identify causes of “Broken Britain”, a remedy will take more than post-liberal promises of “One Nation” politics from the leading parties.  The turbulence and banality of liberalism is too pathologically fixating to be addressed by such empty noblesse oblige.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

Is David Cameron jumping the Tory electoral gun on welfare reform?

David Cowan 10.16am

Occasionally, among the static noise of 24-hour news, there comes a speech that matters. Yesterday’s by David Cameron, on welfare reform, was one of them.

The Government has already made good progress towards a better welfare state with the Universal Credit, Work Programme and the £26,000 benefits cap. But we now know that the Prime Minister and Conservative ministers have only just begun.

David Cameron is hitting back against the “entitlement culture”, which has gravely undermined a sense of “collective responsibility” that used to be so strong. It is at the heart of the ‘big society’ project to rejuvenate civil society. It is also absolutely spot on. If the state constantly intervenes in our lives instead of allowing us to live as individuals and communities, taking responsibility for our own actions, then it creates a client state of automatons.

There is already a ‘welfare gap’ between those who choose not to work and those who work and save for their family’s future. This is not because everyone on benefits is workshy but because of the perverse incentives produced by an overcomplicated system which simply isn’t working.

David Cameron is entering a potentially transformative phase in his premiership. This is not the end of ‘compassionate conservatism’, rather it is a reaffirmation of it. Instead of the lazy assumption that poverty is a problem solved by income redistribution, we are offered a more nuanced understanding. Mr Cameron highlighted the real causes of poverty, such as drug addiction, family breakdown, poor education and debt. Most importantly, he articulated the most effective solution to the problem:

"Compassion isn’t measured out in benefit cheques - it’s in the chances you give people…the chance to get a job, to get on, to get that sense of achievement that only comes from doing a hard day’s work for a proper day’s pay.

That’s what our reforms are all about. Transforming lives. Helping people walk taller.”

Elsewhere in the speech, the ‘Wisconsin model’ established during President Clinton’s administration in the US offered some inspiration: it proposes a two-year time limit on benefits, and for people receiving benefits to carry out full-time community work.

Mr Cameron also spoke about how couples on benefits were having children they obviously could not afford without state support. He proposed that income support should be stopped and additional child benefit limited for families with more than three children. Tougher measures on housing were also mooted, such as lowering the housing benefit cap further and stopping it completely for under-25s.

Deeper cuts to welfare budgets should not come as a surprise. George Osborne has already announced, in last year’s Autumn Statement, two more years of cuts and, in his Budget speech this year, the need for £10 billion of further savings from welfare by 2016 (to be outlined in the next Spending Review).

Political considerations are crucial. Downing Street’s director of strategy, Andrew Cooper, is largely responsible for the policy - his polling research showing that the benefit cap was among the Government’s more popular policies. It can prove how welfare reform is a ‘wedge issue’ on which both the Lib Dems and Labour are viewed as out of touch with the ‘striving classes’. Tougher welfare reform has now become the centrepiece of Conservative differentiation.

David Cameron has crafted a long-term vision for welfare reform that extends beyond this Parliament and establishes the groundwork for the Conservative party’s general election campaign in 2015. Undoubtedly his thinking his correct and needed but it should be some cause for concern that the coalition partners are distancing themselves to such an extent three years out from that election. The coalition needs a renewed unifying mission that goes beyond deficit reduction. A new Coalition Agreement, formulated by people such as David Laws, is what is needed now, not ‘differentiation’.

Mr Cameron’s speech is precisely what the Conservatives need to help them win in 2015. But it may have come a bit too early.

Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan