Home > Guest Contributions > Guest Post: Gordon Brown’s Mixed Bag of Moral Contradictions.

Guest Post: Gordon Brown’s Mixed Bag of Moral Contradictions.

810441-duffyWe 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.

  1. pmcauliffe
    October 2, 2009 at 8:23 am

    Good post. As you correctly point out, providing intensive, multi-level care to some families is (or at least can be) extremely beneficial and important. Where I disagree is th weight you attach to these policies being value-laden. What useful policies have not been valu-laden? Without wanting to sound like a Daily Mail reader, there is little inherently wrong in attaching blame to people if their conduct is blame-worthy (and yes, parents however young must take responsibility for the actions of their children if they systematicaly fail to rear them to prosper at least minimially in what remains a relatively generous welfare state) as long as it leads to somethin constructive. Family Intervention Projects, if applied correctly and fairly, are constructive. It’s not enough to say that FIPs are “moralistic” (a phrase that can mean more or less anything) – those opposed to them need to show that (a) they will fail to improve people’s lives, and b) suggest something better. Moralism, like behaviouralism, hypocrisy and all those metaphsical ills we don’t like cannot alone damn a project. The whole idea of a welfare state is bult around the idea for for a numer of complex reasons, individuals, families and parents will fail for whatever reason to meet basic standards of wealth or health or education. Every worthwhile project since 1945 in Britain has skirtd awkwardly between the scylla of moralism and the charybdis of doing nothing.

  2. dduffy
    October 2, 2009 at 10:20 am

    I think there’s two separate points here. The first is the need for intensive, multi-level support for some families; the second is the conditions for recieving that support. I don’t disagree that the idea behind FIPs (co-ordinated one-to-one care) can be extremely beneficial but my point is that they are given punitively not as a mode of support even though Brown’s refers to them as a means of empowering families. A stick and carrot rather than a carrot and stick. This takes away from the project’s aims as FIPs become ‘sin-bins for bad families’. In terms of failing to improve people’s lives, the purpose of social care is to assist people in achieving particular goals so that eventually they will not need that assistance. If the approach is as reactionary and punishment-driven as it is now it will fail to achieve this as it creates an atmosphere where particular vulnerabilities are targetted as forms of wrong-doing. On the whole my problem is with the lack of clarity Brown demonstrates. He calls for single parents and people with complex needs to be supported and also punished. Such confusion does not assist families, young people or front-line staff in any way.

  3. pmcauliffe
    October 2, 2009 at 10:44 am

    I don’t agree that it is an either/or thing. FIPs can both punish and be a needed support, (and to the extent that they support, how great punishment are they?). FIPs are (and herein lies the limits of metaphor) simultaneously both a stick and a carrot – they aren’t a carrot for some and a stick for others – they are a mixture of both. As for the point that “If the approach is as reactionary and punishment-driven as it is now it will fail to achieve this as it creates an atmosphere where particular vulnerabilities are targetted as forms of wrong-doing”, certain “vulnerabilities” like getting your children obese, failing to send them to school etc etc certainly are in an objective sense wrong-doing and the state is justified in intervening. It doesnt mean that these “vulnerabilities” (more suitable words come to mind) are not the product of deep-rooted social inequalities, but the state has a duty to children and should not shirk from it because it can be deemed punitive or paternalistic. Again, half of our most useful social welfare interventions could be conceived of as sin-bins. It does not detract from their wisdom or necessity

  4. maireadenright
    October 2, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    This is an interesting exchange. Deirdre’s point is about affect and legal intervention. Padraig responds with a demand for practical critique, and then Deirdre breaks her critique by making it indirectly practical.

    I’d recommend the following reading from Halley and Brown, Left Legalism: Left Critique (starting at p. 3) http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=NUrxirFwJNUC&dq=left+legalism+left+critique&printsec=frontcover&source=bn&hl=en&ei=ThbGSvCFKNTRjAfuqZ3yDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4#v=onepage&q=&f=false

  5. pmcauliffe
    October 2, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    That’s definitely worth a look, never heard of it before. The above debate is a microcosm of how almost every leftward government or institution eventually dissolves into rancour. How far do you risk conceding principle to advance good aims? Will those good aim eventually curdle because they divroce themselves so far from principle? Conservatives never face these dilemmas, it’s how they leave office looking less haggard than those coming from the left. Blair and Brown will have aged 30 years on leaving office, David Cameron will be as ruddy-cheeked and punchable as ever

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