Private lives, public concerns: To Labour, Back to Basics means a return to social responsibility, says David Blunkett

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The Independent Online
THERE has been enough hypocrisy over the past few weeks to last us a lifetime. Six months of listening to ministers spouting Back to Basics has rebounded on the Government. Tim Yeo has been forced out of office, while his colleagues struggle to reinterpret the Prime Minister's Back to Basics slogan.

However, the Government's recent ineptitude should not prevent a serious debate taking place about the sort of basic values that men and women across the country would wish to hear about. The breakdown in personal and social responsibility is mirrored by the refusal of the Government to accept its own responsibility for the consequences of economic and social policy. The concerns of the electorate about crime, unemployment, educational standards and the quality of our health service are real and immediate.

The danger that arises from the way in which John Major and his colleagues have dealt with current issues is that those very real concerns will be lost in a squalid argument about the private lives of individuals. Government policy should foster individual responsibility and encourage a sense of community. Policy should help families and individuals to help themselves, to be self-reliant and able to earn their own living, rather than force them to remain in poverty.

In a submission last year to Labour's Commission on Social Justice, I suggested that we should look at the concept of community service which could be undertaken by all 16- to 21-year-olds for a nine-month period. Such service would be paid at a living wage and would give young people a much needed sense of self-worth and a better understanding of the importance of their own contribution to building a community worth living in. Such a scheme could counter the selfishness so evident in the Eighties that has led to our current instability. With almost a million 16-to 24-year-olds out of work and not in training or further and higher education, we are harbouring a timebomb which should become the real moral question of the Nineties.

We should not be afraid to debate such issues as we discuss the sort of 'enabling state' we need for the 21st century. But in that debate, we should also understand the underlying principle of supporting social policies designed to give people a hand up rather than a hand-out.

Unemployment has trapped many people in a world where they see no hope of escaping to something better. Aimless young men inevitably behave differently from those with stable and rewarding jobs, with secure and lasting relationships and with a sense of being needed and having something to offer. This is why, despite the welcome budgetary childcare concession for some single mothers, overall policies have failed to achieve the stated goals of 'individual responsibility' that are preached by the Government.

In the immediate post-war period, when things were a great deal better and more 'basic' - in what one takes as the prime ministerial sense of the word - than they are today, 3 million registered unemployed would have been unthinkable. No government would have retained any credibility defending such an undermining of our social fabric. Even 1 million unemployed was seen in the Sixties and Seventies as unacceptable. Yet a small drop in the jobless figures is trumpeted today by government ministers as some sort of economic success. Full employment is not only an economic imperative, it is a moral and social one as well.

As we examine the decaying fabric of public life and service in Britain in the mid-Nineties we can see why we are ridiculed by our European partners. We need to invest in a public transport system in which public provision is seen as important again. Our health service must be restored to being the best in the world, with patient care and coherent planning once again to the fore, rather than the increased bureaucracy of the internal market. Our schools must start to provide the standards of education and self-discipline that are commonplace in Germany and France. We must accept that government has a role in reducing record levels of crime.

The accountability of local democracy must once again reassert itself over quangos, with people elected on merit rather than nominated for political reasons. If politicians are not universally to be held in low esteem, then it is critical that a new sense of purpose should emerge. Restoring confidence in the democratic process entails devolving decision-taking to people in their own communities and regions while recognising how those decisions are linked with the important European and global issues, which in the long term affect the lives of all of us.

There is a very real and palpable sense that Britain has lost its way. It is important for politicians to start to restore some sense of direction, which goes beyond trite sermons. They can give a genuine moral lead by accepting the need for high standards in political life. Personal relationships are not nearly as important as public policy or waste and maladministration in this regard.

Labour must identify with the aspirations of ordinary people across the country as well as offer our alternatives to the present Government. In doing so, we must rejoice in achievement and act to assist people through an effective and enabling society to meet those aspirations.

If the Government's confused and now dispirited Back to Basics theme is to continue, we should focus our attention on the need for a real partnership between the nation and the individual. That means marrying an acceptance of individual responsibility for our own actions with the responsibility of government to provide the framework to enable real improvements to take place in our lives.

Alas, I fear we shall hear little from government ministers on what they can do to improve the security, prospects and hopes of people throughout Britain. Instead we shall get a great deal more about who they can blame for the malaise that has arisen after 15 years of Conservative administration.

The author, MP for Sheffield Brightside, is Shadow Health Secretary and chairman of the Labour Party.

(Photograph omitted)

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