Melanie Phillips

27 November 2006

Blue Labour

Published in: Daily Mail

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The sheer cynicism of it simply leaves you open-mouthed. Last week, the Conservative leader David Cameron committed his party to tackling relative poverty, which he defined as not having the things that better-off people take for granted.

His strategy, by now so familiar, couldn’t have been more brazen —or insulting to his party’s past. Getting rid of the Tories’ image as the ‘nasty party’ meant repositioning it as the party of compassion for the poor. To do so, he and his warm-up man, Greg Clarke, knocked Winston Churchill off his plinth as party hero and installed instead the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee as the Tories’ new icon.

As the nation variously split its sides, went into shock or simply scratched its head, the Cameroons did high fives over their brilliantly counter-intuitive coup. But in their obsession with image, they have failed to grasp that such opportunism does indeed suggest that they have hearts of stone.

For what Ms Toynbee stands for is not compassionate at all. On the contrary, what she embodies is the politics of hatred. Hatred of the middle class, hatred of men and marriage, hatred of private enterprise and profit, hatred of ordinary people whom she regularly berates as stupid, pig-headed and ungrateful —especially when they dare to hold views which differ from hers.

Of course the hypocrisy, on the part of a person who uses private education and enjoys a holiday home in Italy, is stupendous. But the really shocking thing is that Pollyism hurts most the people it purports to help — those at the bottom of the heap.

Its obsession with comprehensive education has meant that the poor, who rely absolutely on school to escape from disadvantage, have been abandoned to illiteracy and ignorance.

Its sustained attack on married parenthood has abandoned millions of children to fatherlessness and every possible disadvantage in life. The main reason why so many British children are so poor is that they are being brought up by struggling lone parents — whose explosion in numbers, according to the doctrine of Pollygamy, is a triumph of women’s liberation.

It has trapped ever more millions of people into debilitating dependency upon the state, infantilising them by robbing them of responsibility for their own lives and families. Wrapping itself in the sanctimonious mantle of progressive politics, it actually betrays the progressive ideal of social justice. Instead of encouraging the good in people and minimising the bad, it rewards the bad and punishes the good.

Indeed it is deeply reactionary, deriving from the core belief that people are fundamentally contemptible and cannot be trusted with independence, needing the superior wisdom and beneficence of the state to run their lives instead.

All this in the name of the sacred agenda of equality, which is nothing other than the politics of envy and spite. The concept of relative poverty was invented to serve that agenda. By setting the poverty benchmark as a proportion of average wealth, ‘relative poverty’ magics up increasing numbers of people deemed to be poor as the society becomes ever richer.

It is therefore the engine behind a vast and self-perpetuating poverty industry, which is in business to penalise the better-off by robbing them for money with which to control the lives of increasing numbers of people through welfare dependency.

Those who work hard are penalised for doing so; rewards go to those whose own behaviour may have accounted for their disadvantaged circumstances. The results are all around us in households which have not merely been left behind as the caravan of prosperity moves on, but which have become disastrously disengaged altogether from the basic tenets of a civilised society.

These shattered wastelands of squalor, hopelessness, misery and despair are the true legacy of the Polly Toynbee vision.

Yet it is to this social injustice — astoundingly — that the Tories have now committed themselves, with Mr Cameron’s ringing declaration that relative poverty is in his sights.

But no sooner had he said this than he veered off in a contradictory direction. Fighting relative poverty, he said, was about tackling the root causes such as family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction, unemployment or poor education.

This is simply incoherent. Relative poverty can only tackled by income redistribution because it’s all about the gap between rich and poor. Yes, he is absolutely right that the root causes of disadvantage lie in family breakdown and other non-financial factors.

But these can only be tackled by a totally different approach: one that recognises that the welfare state is not the solution but the problem. This is because permanent poverty arises principally from the impoverishment and demoralisation of the human spirit, and the way to remedy it is thus to help change behaviour and give people control over their own destiny.

Mr Cameron pays lip service to re-introducing personal responsibility. Yet he has set his face against recasting state welfare. He is committed to the same spending on health — thus ensuring that the sick poor, who suffer most from the collapse of NHS standards, will remain trapped.

He has dismissed selection in schools, thus opposing the single most important route for poor children out of disadvantage and rejecting the meritocracy which is the very basis of a socially just society.

He will keep the Sure Start childcare programme and the tax credits system, even though Sure Start has been shown to hurt the poor and tax credits have vastly expanded the net of state dependency. Indeed, he appears to be prepared even to undermine the work ethic and weaken the economy by embracing the European 35-hour working week in his Pollyanna-ish pursuit of ‘general wellbeing’.

He is for state controlled public services but also for using the voluntary sector, which would be effectively nationalised; for tax cuts but also for public spending increases; for stable family life but also for lone parents; for a tough approach to crime but also for hugging hoodies and loving louts.

Such radical incoherence enables him to pose as a compassionate Conservative, while leaving us all in a fog about what he would actually do in office.

It is also part of his strategy to enrage traditionalists and newspapers like this one. The louder such protests, the more the Cameroons rub their hands over their ‘Clause Four’ moment in defeating their ‘dinosaurs’.

But when Tony Blair junked Labour’s Clause Four on state control and redistribution of wealth, he was binning a doctrine which ran totally against the interests of the public. Those who supported it were indeed the dinosaurs of the left, and their defeat was essential to persuade the public that never again would Labour engage in class war and frustrate people’s desire to better themselves.

In fact, Labour has indeed conducted an income redistribution by stealth and a sustained onslaught upon the middle class and its values. Yet instead of attacking this, as millions want them to do, the Tories have decided to embrace such an onslaught themselves.

Now an opinion poll suggests that Mr Cameron’s progress may be stalling. If so, this is undoubtedly because people can see through the spin. They don’t want Blue Labour; and they will never trust politicians speaking out of both sides of their mouths.

Throwing Cameroon stardust in people’s eyes may work for a while. But the British are not likely to buy a Polly in a poke. If they can vote for the organ-grinder, after all, why elect the monkey? It’s enough to make a dinosaur laugh.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie