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

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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: www.independent.co.uk/jrentoul

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