David Cameron’s Party is developing what can be seen as their own third way. Thatcherite Conservatives eschewed social ambition and were sceptical about the state. Labour has tended to combine a big social project with confidence in the capacity of Government. Today’s Tories seek to combine a commitment to goals such as social justice and community cohesion with a critique of big government. This is what opposition ministers mean when they talk about pursuing ‘progressive ends through Conservative means’.
Responding to the Tory critique, and to public perceptions that services are not delivering value for money, Labour has sought to make the case for an ‘enabling state’. Ministers promise greater decentralisation to local authorities and neighbourhoods and more power to service users.
The Government is not only championing the idea of personal budgets for social care clients – something considered dangerously radical until a couple of years ago – it is even talking about extending the principle to those with long term health conditions.
This is a key battleground. Progressive commentators like Polly Toynbee warn loudly about the impact on public services and poor communities of the Conservative approach, while Opposition spokespeople lose no opportunity to attack what they see as the innate statism of the Brown Government.
In a recent interview with Oliver Letwin, I asked for some examples of the kind of civic initiatives the Tories rely upon to take up the space left by a receding state. He offered Dick Atkinson whose community campaign against curb crawling in the Birmingham district of Balsall Heath attracted praise from all quarters. But Atkinson’s campaign must be a decade old and its continued prominence in these debates suggests a paucity of other examples of successful sustained community initiatives in poorer areas. The Conservatives will need stronger evidence that civil society can square the circle of social ambition and a reduced state.
Labour can point to real gains in public service performance, for example, shorter average NHS waiting times and a declining number of ‘failing’ schools, but it is far from clear that those communities most dependent on the state have been ‘empowered’ by ten years of Labour rule. Some disadvantaged estates have seen real improvements but for most the dependency culture appears alive and well, something opposition parties are likely to highlight during the Glasgow East by-election campaign. Furthermore new pubic concerns such as that over the epidemic of knife crime in London leave state agencies seemingly powerless to address either the expressions or the causes of social dislocation.
So while the parties seem to agree about what they disagree about, arguably, they both face a credibility gap.