The Tories and the politics of well-being

Louisa and I went to a Demos talk this morning, where David Cameron and Camila Batmanghelidjh (the founder of the charity Kids Company) spoke about the importance of instilling character in young people.

It was the launch of a new 'Inquiry Into Character' organised by Demos, whose director, Richard Reeves, has long been interested in and written about the idea of character-building within the new politics of well-being.

It was a major coup for Demos, to get David Cameron over to give this speech in what is effectively the first week of the election campaign, and there were many big hitter journos in the audience - Nick Robinson of the BBC, Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, and also the flowing-locked philosopher AC Grayling.

Judging by Cameron's speech, it seems the politics of well-being is alive and well, and likely to flourish under the next Tory government. He said:

With a pretty good canon of evidence behind me I would argue that while our innate personalities are part-shaped by genetic inheritance, our character can be learned. There are things we can do to help build responsible character in people.

I know this is tricky territory for a politician. We’re not exactly paragons of virtue ourselves. But to those who think politics should stay away from issues of character and behaviour, I say this: first, look at the scale of our problems. When inequality is at a record high and social mobility has stalled. When the number of people in severe poverty has risen by nearly a million in the last ten years despite billions of pounds of extra spending.

When there are more than 120,000 deaths each year related to obesity, smoking, alcohol and drug misuse. When millions of schoolchildren miss out on learning because their classmates are constantly disruptive. When British families are drowning in nearly one and a half trillion pounds worth of personal debt.

And then ask yourself: do any of these problems relate to personal choices that people make? Or are they all somehow soluble by top down government action, unrelated to what people actually choose to do? Can we hope to solve these problems if we just ignore character and behaviour?

The answer is blindingly obvious. We have a whole host of severe social problems that are caused in part from the wrong personal choices so who can seriously argue that the state should continue to just treat the symptoms of these problems instead of the root causes too?

This is relatively new territory for the Conservative Party. In the past we’ve been guilty of giving the impression that to build a responsible society, all we needed was freedom for the individual plus a strong rule of law from the state. We didn't talk enough about what happened in between. And we were unwilling to intervene more directly in issues of behaviour and character for fear of being intrusive – for twitching the curtains, as it were. 'Leave it all to the bishops' was always the cry.

Even if you don’t buy the idea that good parenting is the key to creating responsible individuals, the evidence shows that it is the single most important determinant of our future success or failure. And I believe that this research produced recently by Demos is truly ground-breaking. It shows that the differences in child outcomes between a child born in poverty and a child born in wealth are no longer statistically significant when both have been raised by “confident and able” parents.

For those who care about fairness and inequality, this is one of the most important findings in a generation. It would be over the top to say that it is to social science what E=MC2 was to physics, but I think it is a real 'sit up and think' moment. That discovery defined the laws of relativity; this one is the new law for social mobility:

What matters most to a child’s life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting. As Stephen Scott of the National Academy of Parenting Practitioners has said: “Poverty is a factor, but not a central one...It seems to be poverty of the parent-child experience…that leads to poor child outcomes rather than poverty of a material kind”.

Now, of course it can and should be argued that it is easier to achieve good parenting when there is material prosperity but the findings in the study seem so significant that they should help us to settle a fierce debate that has been raging for decades about how we build a fairer society.

The left have always argued that the best way to tackle disadvantage is to redistribute money from the rich to the poor. But the assumptions held for so long, that when it comes to fighting poverty, reducing inequality and increasing opportunity, politics should remain neutral on family life and government should concern itself solely with issues of tax and spending, these assumptions have been proved wrong.

Instead, what we find is this: if we want to give children the best chance in life – whatever background they are from – the right structures need to be in place, strong and secure families, confident and able parents, an ethic of responsibility instilled from a young age.

The nitty gritty were things like recognising all marriages - gay as well as lesbian - and giving them tax breaks when they got married; putting more effort into a programme called Sure Start, to provide counseling and emotional support to parents in the first three years of a child’s life (apparently most marriages break up in the first year after a child’s birth); and also doing more to support academies. The Tories also support a national citizens’ service for 16-year-olds.

It wasn’t a bad speech, but the real firestormer was the reply by Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company, which Lou is going to work for. Her speech was awesome. She said she was heartened that the Tories were finally engaging with the question of young people’s well-being, from a nurturing rather than simply an authoritarian stand-point.

However, she also said she was worried that politicians of all parties were giving nice speeches about young people and well-being but not getting down to the ugly truth - which is that there are 1.5 million children suffering from neglect and abuse, while the child protection system can only help around 35,000 children, so around 31,000 children are de-registered from the child protection register each year in order to make room on the register for new kids.

She said that when something like Baby P happens, when a child is bullied to death by their parents, “the nation is happy to rise up and blame the parents”, rather than the lack of tax money spent on actually protecting children. “We spend £298 million on locking up children, which is around 8 times more than we spend on intervention.”

The problem with many initiatives, she said, was that they assumed a narrative where parents are capable of engaging with social services and going along to counseling sessions and so on, when in fact, some parents are so dysfunctional that this is beyond them - or they simply don’t want to. Who will protect the children then?

Then the Labour MP Frank Field gave a speech, in which he said that the British used to pride themselves on being good parents, “but now they’ve ceased to care”. He suggested parenting should be taught in schools, and also suggested we should have secular versions of the bat mitzvah and baptism ceremonies, “to welcome the child formally into the world, and to recognise formally that they have passed from being a child towards being an adult”.

I was pleased that Cameron is engaging with this area, and he seemed a nice bloke whose heart is in the right place. Not the biggest intellect, and not the greatest public speaker by any means, but I think he cares about people more than, say, Boris Johnson, who in the final analysis only really cares about himself.

It’s easy to talk about character and well-being, but I think the real work in this area is not done by the state but by organisations like Kids Company that give children from broken families somewhere else to go, and someone else to interact with and imitate. I was really impressed by Camila’s passion, and wish her all the best in her work.

Here's a video clip of Cameron's speech: