John Rentoul: If Britain is 'broken', who broke it?

We've been here before: the Tories' scare stories are bogus. More to the point, they have no alternative plan

Related Topics

Beware cultural blah. Chris Grayling's comparison of crime on British streets to that on the American cult series The Wire did not simply make the shadow Home Secretary look foolish – it didn't work. It was not a comparison that told us anything useful, either about Labour's failings as a government or about Conservative policies to remedy them.

As Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former press secretary, pointed out: "The popular culture resonances appear not to be a supplement to policy, but a replacement of them". Campbell added: "I should here plead guilty to some pretty ghastly cultural blah myself. Adding Tony Blair's voice to the 'free Deirdre' campaign running as a storyline in Coronation Street was probably not my finest hour."

I will take his word for it. I know as little about soap opera as I do about US police series, so I cannot really judge his defence that the free Deirdre stunt was at least "kind of funny".

Blair was guilty of another tangle with "cultural blah" that offers a neater parallel to Grayling's attempt last week to get down with the hard cases watching The Wire without subtitles. The year before he came to power, Blair made a speech in which he warned of "a Blade Runner scenario" as a possible vision of Britain's future under the Tories.

My dim memory is that it was never established whether the Leader of the Opposition had actually seen Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic. But Blair managed to avoid the mockery heaped on today's shadow Home Secretary, who has watched "most of season one" of The Wire. Like the film, which is set in 2019, Blair's analogy was set in the future. The other future "open to this country", he suggested, was as "one nation".

Well, if there is a little voice from the back seat asking, after a 13-year journey, "Are we there yet?", the answer has to be "No". Indeed, to continue the metaphor, there seems to be some dispute in the front of the car about whether the map has been read correctly.

Hence the other echo from that pre-1997 dawn in which it was bliss to be alive, namely Blair's 1995 party conference speech: "Look at the wreckage of our broken society." Oppositions always claim that society is broken, and they often turn to fictional examples to make the point.

The view from the back seat is that we've been here before. The vehicle might have made a little progress in a "one nation" direction, but now we seem to be returning to square one. In many ways, the recession has exposed how little progress has been made in the Blair-Brown years.

Theresa May, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, was also at it last week, with a speech that made one well-known point: that there are still six million people in Britain on out-of-work benefits.

It was not a bad speech. It was a terrible speech. I was reminded of something Professor Philip Cowley once said about the Power Inquiry into democracy. He said that if it had been handed in to him as an essay he would not have given it even a 2:2; he would have failed it. He would have failed it and expelled the author from university, barred them from any other academic institution in Britain; then hunted down and killed all their family.

Theresa May's speech comes into that category. Benefit dependency is a huge issue facing any government, and yet at no point did her words rise above platitude. Of course, Labour's record on welfare reform is unimpressive. But if Britain was a broken society in 1995, and if it has not been fixed as much as we would like now, who broke it? The big rise in crime occurred in Margaret Thatcher's early years. The huge rise in lone parenthood happened on her watch. The great social re-engineering of shipping millions from the unemployment register to long-term sickness benefit was undertaken by her administration.

And Labour has done many of the right things to try to stick Humpty together again, however partial and inadequate the record might be. May – and Grayling – are entitled to point out how far Labour has fallen short of its own ambitions in dealing with crime, antisocial behaviour and worklessness, but pretending that Labour caused them is not a good starting place. Surely, Labour's relative failure might suggest the Herculean difficulty of the task, and the obligation on the Opposition to work out its alternative.

Yet the only policy proposal in May's speech, to "reassess" all existing claims for sickness benefit, is already government policy and is already beginning to drive the numbers down. She called it Incapacity Benefit although it was renamed Employment Support Allowance last October, so she may not have been aware of the policy changes announced by James Purnell before he resigned – to review all new claimants and existing claimants, starting with the under-25s.

But welfare reform is neither easy nor cheap. Hence last week's fuss over proposed cuts to housing benefits. At present if tenants move to cheaper accommodation, they keep some of the rent they are saving in doing so; this would cease. Yet, in the long term, this is clever move that would save public money.

That same principle – of allowing people who claim the dole to keep some of the savings to the public purse if they get a job – needs to be extended not snuffed out. Again because it offers real hope of getting social security spending under control in the long run. But it will be difficult for politicians of any hue to pursue such policies while under intense pressure to make immediate cuts.

Britain was not really a broken society when Blair used the term, and it is less so now, but it does have some deep-seated social problems that demand heroic political leadership. Labour's record is not good enough, but that means that the Tories have to prepare themselves better than Blair and Brown did before 1997. They have not. No wonder Grayling resorts instead to cultural blah.

John Rentoul's blog is at:

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

When a small amount of desk space means the world

Rebecca Armstrong
It’s all in the detail; Ed Miliband with ‘Britain Can Be Better’ (AFP/Getty)  

General Election 2015: Parties must remember the 50-plus vote

Stefano Hatfield
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own