Social engineering. A phrase that is to politicians what garlic is to vampires. The conjunction of these two words reminds one of totalitarianism, of the gulag and the death camp. It speaks of the perils of good intentions, of grand schemes getting broken on the rock of social complexity. Hence it's a term confined to politics' rusty armoury, only to be dusted off for a readymade insult to fling across the chamber. But for all that, every single one of our parties of government are social engineers. By this I don't mean that they blindly implement policies with social consequences, rather governments use the power of the state and the weight of the law to mould society to create more politically propitious opportunities for themselves. And for our lovely freedom-hugging liberty-kissing parties in this great democracy, engineering happens as a matter of routine.
We know the Conservatives have a problem. Their membership has collapsed, their core vote is menaced by the populist right, they haven't won a general election for over 20 years - despite taking on a crisis-plagued and almost-hated government in 2010 - and electoral support over the long-term is one of decline. True, it isn't a bed of roses for Labour either but the Tories are feeling the pain. Really feeling the pain. And yet, this is remarkably after it has carried through policies that, on paper, should have boosted support for their party since the blessed Margaret took the helm. Thatcher's reign crudely fits into two halves. The first part of her premiership was about attacking the trade unions and inflicting a strategic defeat on the labour movement. She used the power of the state to wage war on the organised working class, and it was a fight her side won. The political potency of that movement was dulled to the extent it hasn't recovered 30 years on. So that rather overt bit of social engineering preceded the meat of the Tory programme - the gutting of the institutions of the post-war consensus. Finance was completely deregulated, mass privatisations of state-owned business went ahead, the great council house sell-off got underway, and there was a concerted effort by government to support small business. Reading these measures politically, privatisation was done with a view to creating a wider layer of share holders - aided and abetted by the new easing of restrictions on share trading. Offering families the chance to buy council houses at a discount saw millions become owner-occupiers for the first time. The government's enthusiasm for small business was an attempt to expand self-employment. And in each and every case, the expected conceit was the new shareholders, new homeowners, new business people would vote Tory in perpetuity. The real children of Thatcher were not champagne-swilling yuppies, but the ex-miner who had bought his council house and invested his redundancy money in a business of his own.
You can argue about how successful this was. Were these measures just enough to keep the Tories on in '87 and '92? It is difficult to say. But whatever the case, the Tories are now beavering away with yet more social engineering, but far more brazenly. Selling off Royal Mail ticks a few ideological boxes for the Tories, and helps massage those GDP figures. But ultimately the real prize is knocking out a powerful trade union, and spreading some of that small shareholder love to Middle England investors. Their appalling attacks on the unemployed and the disabled is about a divide-and-rule ideology in which the many are appalled by the "underclass" and are, by extension, appalled at the Labour Party for (imperfectly and haphazardly) defending them. Forget the hooey about work incentives, it's pure politics. The Help to Buy scheme for people wanting to get at the housing ladder is a short term (and short termist) measure to pull more mainly young, and mainly middle class voters in the Tory train. Same-sex marriage and tax breaks for married couples are rather crude attempts to "nudge" Tory-voting family units into being. Their attacks on the public sector is about breaking up what they see as a uniformly Labourist bloc. And again, throwing hundreds of thousands of civil servants out of work with the parachute of a modest redundancy will see not a few of them try their hands at business. Every single one of these measures has the fingerprint of political calculation all over them. But, so far, there is scant evidence the "beneficiaries" of these policies are gracing the Conservatives with their votes.
Of course, the blue team aren't the only ones to do this. The last Labour government had a go too, though with slightly different emphases. Even the dogs in the street know what triangulation is these days. The idea that as you rest on a core vote with no one else to support, the party is free to channel its energies and resources at the swing voters. And we know how this played out in the days of New Labour - neoliberalism untouched, and social democratic policies either left in the cupboard or snuck out under the radar. Mainly it was about appearing as managerial and as unthreatening as possible. Nevertheless in its attempt to become British capital's preferred party of government, it too bashed social security and immigrants when occasion required it. But most important were the measures New Labour took in opening up the state, local councils and the NHS to marketisation. In all essentials, Blair and Brown created markets where none existed before providing profitable business opportunities for enterprising firms. One effect of this, whether intentional or not, was the creation of an entire business sector that had New Labour to thank for its success. Theoretically, New Labour had politically annexed a section of British capital, which included some very wealthy people, smaller firms and the small investor. It wasn't just about neoliberal dogma - it was an attempt to put roots down among so-called wealth creators by stuffing their mouths with taxpayer gold.
And then there is today. Labour's emerging programme of government is much better than what went before, and represents a clear break with the Tories across most political fronts. I don't presume the dear leader frequents this corner of the internets, but after banging on about insecurity since returning to blogging for an age, I'm happy that the party has got some policies that aim to tackle it. And today's speech sits firmly within that theme. There appears to be the dawning realisation that neglecting the party's natural support or, worse, seeing through policies that distress and atomise it further isn't good news for the Labour Party. I might be naively optimistic, but there are flashes here and there that the leadership are groping toward the idea of a campaign for a permanent Labour majority. That is using the power of the state to push policies that benefit millions of working people, that offers us all more secure lives, greater opportunities, and sustainable costs of living. In other words, it too will have to engineer majorities through the promotion of new solidarities of working people, and giving wider layers of people a stake in returning Labour governments time after time.
It is easier said than done, mind. The Tory success is mixed, if that's the right word. Part of it is cultural - they do not realise how out of step they are with modern life. But part of it is the legacy of the violence they inflicted as British society was reshaped. That miner who used his redundancy to build a business. Yes, he is Thatcher's child. But that doesn't mean he's ever likely to vote for her kind. Echoes of conflict resonate down the years. Labour's problem is different. It has the task of winning people to a positive political programme in a context where mainstream politics is alienating and trust between it and the electorate is at an historic low. It also has the difficult task of selling a vision about social responsibility and, gasp, collectivism in a highly individuated culture. The cost of living crisis is a rich political seam that the Tories cannot locate, let alone contest Labour's rights to mine it and it has proven an astute tactical move that has thrown them into disarray. And it could carry Labour all the way back into Downing Street. But once we get there, it's not enough that we ease the lives of "our people" - we have to ensure that we use policy to strengthen the social forces our party and our movement rests on. In short, we must impose a new settlement that represents a permanent and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth to working people and their families.
Need social engineering be such a filthy phrase?