Cameron has promised what he cannot deliver on social exclusion

We need to recognise the limits to the state's ability to solve complex social problems.

In the dark, panic-fuelled days following last summer’s riots, David Cameron made a knee-jerk pledge to turn around the lives of 120,000 "troubled families" by the end of this parliament. The promise presented a neat policy solution to calm the moral panic that followed the disturbing mix of child criminality, mindless destruction and deprivation brought to the fore by the riots.

Cameron is not the first politician to make sweeping promises in a bid to reassure the public and get tough on social disorder. Even more ambitious vows were made by New Labour on coming to power in 1997 to mend the decayed social fabric of the country after years of Tory rule. Tony Blair famously pledged to "eradicate child poverty" and Peter Mandelson spoke in 1997 of his vision for New Labour to "end social exclusion". Unsurprisingly, given the scale of these ambitions, the Blair and Brown governments fell short in achieving them, despite significant gains. But it is not so much the scale of these undertakings, as the way in which they perpetuate the illusion that it is in the gift of the state to achieve them that is their undoing.

Take, for example, the Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) begun under New Labour that Cameron’s "troubled families" policy is based on. The government stressed that the projects were excellent value for money in preventing or reducing anti-social behaviour (ASB) in 8 out of 10 cases. They provided much needed one-to-one support for families struggling with serious social problems. But a later evaluation found that in less than a year ASB returned in just over half of families and that this was primarily related to mental health problems.

In fact, 80 per cent of the FIP families in this study had mental or physical health problems, yet a further report found that only 11 per cent of families received professional psychiatric treatment or counselling and only 35 per cent received parenting classes. Another study of FIPs in Leicestershire found that none of the participants could explain what the purpose and objectives of the support they were receiving were.

The projects were undoubtedly doing excellent work, but in some cases, without creating a sense of ownership or drawing on the agency of these families and addressing the root causes of their problems, the projects hit their target but missed the point, which was for families to sustain lasting change. The lesson of this period for today has to be to recognise the limits of a hubristic state to ‘solve’ complex social problems.

It is unlikely, given the political capital staked on it, that the coalition’s troubled families scheme will be allowed to be seen to have failed. Though it has fewer resources available to spend per family than the FIPs and a vastly higher number of families to "turn around" to reach the much criticised target of 120,000 families in time for the 2015 election (FIPs helped 5000 people at their peak in 2010), the Troubled Families Unit itself will evaluate the overall impact of the programme and some of the success criteria will be measured subjectively. The assumption that there is a link between these families and the riots has barely been challenged despite no real evidence to support it. But what exactly is the point of the government setting targets it has little real control over achieving anyway?

Both right and left need to rethink the way in which government tackles deep social problems and also how they do ‘tough love’ politics. Obvious as it may sound, politicians must grasp that it is only individuals with the right support, not governments, that can turn their lives round. This means a greater understanding of what leads to genuine, sustainable change for those individuals, whether that is through a greater sense of ownership and control over shaping outcomes or using limited resources differently to provide longer term and more specific support.

It also means thinking about whether central government pledging to ‘deliver’ an end to hard, long running problems in lives of the most disadvantaged is the best way to show it is getting tough on social disorder or to legitimise spending money on the most vulnerable and least popular groups, which is ultimately what these commitments are about.

Interviews with key figures inside Labour and on the right for a review of New Labour’s social exclusion agenda, soon to be published by IPPR, suggest that unrealistic pledges on complex social problems can erode instead of deepen public trust and are likely to be a thing of the past. The coalition may well prove to be the last government to make promises on tackling extreme disadvantage that are not within its power to achieve. This may be no bad thing both for the people they aim to support or for British politics.

Clare McNeil is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

Twitter: @claremcneil1

A scene from last year's riots in Hackney on August 8, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Clare McNeil is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

Twitter: @claremcneil1

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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.