David Cameron: We must tackle the problems of urban Britain

We have to look, feel, think and behave like a completely new organisation
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It says three important things about the kind of party we must become to be relevant to people's lives in modern Britain, and to become the best vehicle for achieving their aspirations.

First, we need to engage in places that have almost become "no-go" areas for my party. We need to throw our energy, passion and creativity into tackling the problems of urban Britain. Our most deprived neighbourhoods suffer from a deeply ingrained set of linked challenges: family breakdown, chaotic home environments, drug dependency, youth crime and poverty of aspiration. We must address these challenges with the same vigour that we once applied to the challenge of turning around Britain's economy.

Second, we need to show that we have answers to one of the most important challenges Britain faces: the challenge of strengthening social cohesion in a more atomised society where people are increasingly retreating into fragmented and isolated communities. We have a shared responsibility to build a decent society: we're all in this together, and I want the Conservative Party to take the lead in breaking down the barriers that divide people and communities.

Language is one of the most important of those barriers. You can't fully participate in national life if you don't speak English, a simple fact which is the inspiration for the reading project I visited on Sunday. By going into the homes of Asian Britons where the parents speak little or no English, and reading English stories to the children, local Conservatives in Dewsbury are making a vital contribution to community cohesion.

Third, we must become the champions of social action. Inner city communities have seen no shortage of state spending. But the state is conspicuously failing to tackle those communities' problems. Conservatives have always believed that the state can't solve everyone's problems and shouldn't try. But "rolling back the state" should never mean that the weak are left behind. We have to show, sincerely, that we do think there's such a thing as society - it's just not the same thing as the state.

There's a new generation of social entrepreneurs and community leaders doing amazing things to tackle some of our most entrenched urban problems. Kids Company, run by Camilla Batmanghelidj in south London, is helping to put the most emotionally damaged young people back on the road to a positive life. She never turns anyone away, even if they turn up with a gun or a knife.

A youth club in my constituency is extending its core role by hiring talented ex-teachers to run classes for children at risk of exclusion. Kaleidoscope in Kingston is helping some of the most difficult and unstable drug addicts. And the Tabernacle School in west London provides education of a high standard with strong discipline - at a remarkably low cost - to parents whose children were simply sinking in inner city schools. There are thousands more, all over Britain, and the Conservative Party must become their champions.

We must show how Conservative values and principles, recast to suit the spirit of the age and the challenges of our times, can set these inspiring social entrepreneurs free so they can multiply their impact. In the 1980s, we created enterprise zones to help businesses invest in deprived communities and create jobs and opportunity. In the same way, we should now establish Social Action Zones where voluntary organisations are freed from bureaucracy and the regulations in the way of their expansion.

This is a distinctive modern compassionate Conservative agenda. Different from the caricature of the Tory party that has been allowed to take hold, and different from the approach of New Labour which uses Tory language to hide its instinctive desire to tell people what to do. Instead, my kind of Conservatism will set people free to do their best for themselves, their families and their communities - not just in the countryside, not just in the suburbs, but in our towns and cities too.

That's what I mean when I say that the Conservative Party has to change more than its policies and presentation. We have to change our culture and attitudes: we have to look, feel, think and behave like a completely new organisation. If we do that, we will be able to inspire a new generation with Conservative ideas and Conservative ideals.

The writer is shadow Education Secretary and a Tory leadership candidate