Politicians in opposition tend to denounce the "broken society" around them. When they get into government, however, they usually come round to the view that most of the society for which they are responsible functions well. They decide that problems are restricted to a defined number of thousands of troubled families – and draw up policies to deliver targeted help to them. This "government" view is truer, and a better guide to policy, than the "opposition" view.
The transition from one view to the other happened, rather slowly, under Labour. Tony Blair, who as leader of the opposition condemned the Tory broken society, admitted in his memoir that he had been wrong, and that it had taken a long time to shift to a targeted policy.
So we should praise Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, for adopting the targeted approach relatively early on in the life of this administration. In his interview with The Independent on Sunday today, he accepts that the previous government made "honest" attempts to tackle the problem, and sets out a new results-based incentive scheme for local councils, which he will announce tomorrow, to push the policy further.
Mr Pickles's refreshing bipartisanship went only so far, however, as he accused Labour of having been held back by political correctness and a reluctance to "stigmatise or lay blame". Well, maybe. But his paraphrase of a song from West Side Story, "Dear Officer Krupke, I've come from a single home, my mother's a drunk, blah blah blah, it's not my fault", was apt. There is no harm in toughening the rhetoric against people who play the system and who are, as Mr Pickles puts it, "fluent in social work".
Indeed, the time is probably right for a Conservative cabinet minister to utter again the phrase that caused John Major so much trouble nearly 20 years ago, that the Government should be "a little less understanding" and a little more forceful about the responsibilities that go with rights. Mr Major was deliberately misconstrued by his opponents as suggesting that the Government should not try to understand the causes of social problems. But now, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and in a time of austerity, a working-class Tory might gain a fair hearing for the idea that destructive behaviour should not be excused.
We have two reservations about the Government's policy. One is the definition of "troubled families". Mr Pickles appears to have inherited from Labour a crude range of indicators that does not seem sophisticated enough to identify the root causes of poor parenting, antisocial behaviour and criminality. The factors include low income, poor housing and long-term illness, none of which is incompatible with responsibility and public spirit.
This failure to focus intervention sufficiently tightly must mean that public money is wasted by assigning troubleshooters to families that do not need help. And this is directly linked, in turn, to our second criticism, which is that such a policy cannot be done on the cheap. There is a strong case not only for cutting the deficit less quickly, for the sake of maintaining aggregate demand and therefore economic activity, but also for investing public money in this kind of scheme. As Mr Pickles says, tough economic times should not be a reason for pulling back from such programmes. But it is well known, from all government experience of turning round problem families, that it requires sustained, intensive and expensive intervention.
However worthy Mr Pickles's policy might be, it is unlikely to succeed if it is badly targeted and inadequately funded.