Guest Post: Gordon Brown’s Mixed Bag of Moral Contradictions.
We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Deirdre Duffy (left) reflecting on Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour Party Conference. Deirdre, a graduate of UCC and PhD candidate in Nottingham, has extensive experience in researching the impact of Labour’s ‘respect agenda’ on socio-economic rights in Britain. You can find a biography of Deirdre on the Guest Contributors page.
More a ‘fist thump’ than a ‘swansong’ according to The Guardian, Gordon Brown’s keynote address at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton this week sought to re-establish the core elements of the party-line in a campaign manifesto which served more as a quick guide to New Labour than a promotion of the party’s own prowess. Like Blair – and Cameron for that matter – the Prime Minister has tried to position himself at the moral centre of British politics, stressing ‘values’ and social responsibility and proposing an ambitious set of policies to support the most vulnerable members of British society. However laudable as this may sound, a brief glance at Brown’s manifesto shows that, like Blair, the Brownite approach appears to have conflated ‘support’ with ‘control’ and proposes a system where services to vulnerable groups will become steadily more inaccessible and conditional.
Take young people for example. On the one hand, Brown reiterates his support for what could broadly be dubbed alternative forms of education and youth participation by pledging to direct financial assistance to the formation of youth apprenticeship programmes, internships and youth initiatives. In addition, Brown outlines how a Labour government will set up supported living projects for single parents, young parents and vulnerable young people between 16 and 17. In a rare moment of clarity regarding the needs of young people, Brown condemns the idea that ‘giving a 16 year old the keys to a council flat’ is the best approach to supporting young peoples’ transition to independent living and that the bias in favour of university education has led to the exclusion of young people for whom university may not be desirable or appropriate from education and training.
Unfortunately, although this glimmer of goodwill towards young people who do not fit traditional perceptions of ‘acceptable’ behaviour and recognition of the diversity of their needs is a welcome one, it is also predictably brief. Less than five paragraphs after vindicating the arguments of youth groups and voluntary sector agencies, Brown’s support for the youth of Britain turns to vilification. Like Blair, Brown underscores the primacy of the responsible citizen and states that those who do not fit this mould of ‘responsibility’ will find themselves excluded and without support. In particular, the Prime Minister describes how the streets of Britain will be emancipated from ‘teenage tearaways’ and how they and their parents will be made pay for their antisocial behaviour. Brown also speaks out in favour of Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) or intensive intervention programmes for families accused of systematic irresponsibility and repeated antisocial behaviour offences.
This places vulnerable young people in an extremely precarious and confusing position. On the one hand, Brown’s speech signals recognition of the complexity of the issues faced by young people and the need to adapt social policy to meet these needs rather than expect young people’s needs to adapt to fit the support offered to them. On the other, it replicates the moralistic discourses and ‘behaviourist’ attitude which leads to the most vulnerable young people and their families receiving blame and punishment rather than support and understanding. Family Intervention Projects are a clear example of this. While in many ways providing intensive, multi-level care to some families is extremely beneficial and important, FIPs caveat this support in a value-laden, moralistic attribution of blame. Families are offered access to FIPs when they are judged to have ‘failed’ in their responsibilities as citizens. Young people are given support as punishment not in response to their needs.
In this way, Brown’s ‘fist thump’ has again shown that young people who do not fit the perceived ‘responsible citizen’ image are given two options, both of which are damaging both emotionally and in terms of their future prospects. They can either be victims and be treated as near-powerless, or as ‘tearaways’ and condemned as a threat to Labour’s vision of social order. Either way, once again Labour is restricting the options of young people who may be running out of choices and while Brown’s ‘lost generation’ may not look like that of the 1980s, it will be equally marginalised and unsupported.
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