John Rentoul: Sending signals is not enough

The Conservative leader's flailing semaphore doesn't address the complexities of 'our broken society'

The last time David Cameron went on about the broken society, I wrote one of those guess-who columns about the Leader of the Opposition who says, "Look at the wreckage of our broken society," before revealing that I had been quoting Tony Blair in 1995. This time, everyone has spotted the parallel. The Daily Mail's leading article yesterday used that very device, quoting "a future prime minister" as if it were Cameron last week but then saying: "The year is 1993, and the speaker is the up-and-coming shadow Home Secretary, one Tony Blair." So society has been broken all this time, it would seem. Or not fundamentally broken at all, according to preference. Call me a mindless optimist who prefers not to know about the evil underside of life, but I think the "broken society" was an unhelpful exaggeration then and is an unhelpful exaggeration now.

Whatever it is, though, it has not changed. The number of children murdered shows no trend over the past 17 years – an average of 77 a year. The really horrible cases, by definition, are rare. So to use the Doncaster case, or Bulger, or Baby P, or Rhys Jones, to claim that the country has gone to the dogs under the current government is to take the voters for fools. Unfortunately, the voters seem to like it. When Cameron took up the case of Rhys Jones, the 11-year-old accidentally shot dead by a teenage in a pub car park in Liverpool, it lifted him in his fightback against Gordon Brown's honeymoon in the autumn of 2007.

To be fair to David Cameron, like Blair before him, he is intelligent enough to avoid making the boneheaded argument that social breakdown has occurred recently as a result of the policies of the incumbents. That does not stop his supporters in the media. Cristina Odone, for example, appeared on Sky News to blame the Doncaster horror story on Labour, because it had discouraged marriage and substituted the state for the responsibilities of parents.

Where does one begin? Did she think that the perpetrators should have been returned to the dysfunctional – and married – parents who were the cause of the problem in the first place? When challenged, she retreated to the observation that the Doncaster care services had not worked as well as they should. In his speech on Friday, Cameron was more careful. He said mildly that Britain was "in danger of becoming an irresponsible society". But his argument was no more coherent. It was all about the "signals that we send to people in Britain today", he said.

What were the wrong "signals" that "we" send? To single mums, the signal of high rates of benefit withdrawal that act as a disincentive for them to earn more. To headteachers, being overruled on their decisions to expel pupils. And to people who work in the public services, the "signal" that "it is all about processes, box-ticking, targets and sitting in front of a computer". Now here is a semiotician at work. It is not about the policies; it is about the signals that we send.

So do not pay attention to the detail of benefit reform: that to reduce work disincentives you must increase tax credits for the relatively well paid (a week after George Osborne has promised to "means test" tax credits for higher earners). Ignore the effect of abolishing school appeals panels – that more parents will go to the courts to challenge heads' decisions. And never mind the effect on Doncaster social services of removing "processes", targets and computers.

Nothing sums up the weakness of the Cameron phenomenon better. He is a semaphore politician, signalling frantically to a bored and alienated audience. Inheritance tax cuts. Make no sense as the public finances melt down, but send a signal. Marriage. He is so much in favour of it that he persists with a policy to penalise people whose spouses have walked out on them. But this is not about facts. It is about sending signals.

Of course, it would be naive to think that, with an election approaching, politics could be about much else. In America, the voters of Massachusetts sent a signal to the President and Barack Obama sent one right back, suddenly announcing the he would do such things to the bankers – "What they are, yet I know not". Over here, Blair certainly created the template for Cameron to take off the shelf – the one labelled "Moral Panic No 4: Feral Children". But – and no doubt I will be accused of being a hopeless Blair apologist – I do believe that there was more of a solid policy base to Blair's signalling. Some of his rhetoric about "remoralising society" was vacuous, and Labour was never likely to reverse the rise in lone parenthood that mostly occurred when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. But there was a coherence about "tough on the causes of crime", Sure Start, the minimum wage and a laser focus on primary-school standards that seems lacking from Cameron's signalling.

There are two responses to Cameron's borrowing of Blair's words and themes. One is to say, with the Daily Mail, that now we know that Blair's speech "was mere words" (while Cameron's was made of iron girders). The other is to say that these issues are very, very difficult.

That may not seem to matter to Cameron now. When it comes to elections, most voters do not retain much information about parties or their leaders. I remember an American consultant saying that most people knew only three things about Bill Clinton: that he came from a place called Hope, he was a new kind of Democrat and he was tough on crime. Of Cameron, they will say that he is a decent toff, a new kind of Conservative and he believes in marriage.

The contradictions of his policies on marriage will do him no harm at all. But then he will be in power, and will find that sending signals becomes much harder because he failed to resolve some of the difficult policy issues beforehand.

John Rentoul blogs at: