In trying to transform itself from a party that is perpetually
having to say sorry into an opposition with alternative policies,
the Tories at their conference last week, came up with some real
duds and a couple of genuine attempts to make improvements in the
lives of the vulnerable. Some of these attempts did not deserve to
be dismissed out of hand as they were by Labour and the Liberal
The biggest dud, of course, was the proposal to give housing
association tenants the right to buy. Conservative prime minister
Margaret Thatcher first introduced the policy in 1980, excluding
associations that were charities for a very good reason. How can
those who provide a roof over the head for disabled people, the
poor and the ill, fulfil their remit if a large proportion of their
stock is constantly sold off at rock bottom prices?
Other more constructive ideas were significant because they marked
a symbolic change from the traditional Conservative “lock’em up and
throw away the key” approach to criminal justice and because that
ideological shift eases the pressure Labour constantly places upon
itself to be seen to be tougher than the Tories.
Oliver Letwin, the shadow home secretary, outlined a scheme for
20,000 teenage addicts, involving a ten-fold rise in the number of
treatment places. The opposition said that it would be costly (so
is drug-related crime) and there are insufficient skilled staff
(so, increase recruitment and training).
Letwin also suggested that imprisoned teenagers should be released
on temporary licence and sent on residential “outward bound”
courses. Any social worker with a reasonable memory will appreciate
the irony of a Conservative politician suggesting the kind of
scheme that for years the Daily Mail has rubbished as
“rewarding” young thugs by indulging them in holiday camps.
Again, Labour and the Liberal Democrats damned the proposal as “a
back of the envelope policy” (surely the source of some of the very
best ideas?). They claim that the project on which Letwin’s idea is
based deals with 18 to 24 year olds and suffers a high drop out
rate. So what? Adapt, analyse, adjust – how else can projects move
from the drawing board to becoming policies?
Success in social policy has always had failure woven through it in
the initial stages – yet politicians still tiresomely pretend
otherwise. Unless, of course, it’s their own proposal under