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Why 'social exclusion' is the in thing

Michael Fitzpatrick on the moral message behind New Labour's favourite catchphrase

On returning from his summer holiday in Tuscany to find the country in a flap about two 12-year old pregnant girls in South Yorkshire, Tony Blair proclaimed that 'we need to find a new national moral purpose for this new generation'. Following the publication in June of a major report on teenage pregnancy by the government's Social Exclusion Unit (SEU), these cases provide the perfect focus for continuing the New Labour campaign for national moral renewal and welfare reform through targeting single parents and the young unemployed.

At the launch of the Social Exclusion Unit in December 1997, Blair summed up the significance of the concept for New Labour, barely six months after its landslide victory: '[Social exclusion] is a very modern problem, and one that is more harmful to the individual, more damaging to self-esteem, more corrosive for society as a whole, more likely to be passed down from generation to generation, than material poverty.' The term social exclusion is certainly a very modern one, with an immediate appeal to this self-consciously modernising government. It appears to be less pejorative and stigmatising than more familiar notions such as 'the poor' or 'the underclass'.

Social exclusion also implies a process rather than a state: people are being squeezed out of society, not just existing in conditions of poverty. The modern term suggests a negative judgement on the mainstream as well as the marginalised. In this spirit the SEU report on teenage pregnancy comments on 'Britain's shameful record' - the highest rate in Europe - as something that reflects badly on the whole of society, not merely on the teenagers concerned.

It is not that New Labour is any more sympathetic to the socially excluded than the previous government was to the underclass. In his widely publicised speech at the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark shortly after the election, Blair referred to 'the scourge of many communities...young people with nothing to do who make life hell for other citizens'. The New Labour government has far outdone the Tories in introducing a range of repressive measures to deal with this scourge'.

The concept of social exclusion includes a novel sense of guilt over the failures of society as well as the familiar condescension towards the poor. It expresses anxiety about the consequences of social breakdown as well as fear of crime and delinquency. In addition to legitimising a more interventionist welfare policy, it also accepts the need for measures of restraint on rampant capitalist enterprise and for a more authoritarian society for everybody.

Where did 'social exclusion' come from? An academic survey of 'social exclusion in comparative perspective' notes that reports from seven European countries all 'emphasised the newness of the term' (Prue Chamberlayne, Social Strategies in Risk Societies, April 1997). This study reveals that it only became firmly established in policy agendas across Europe 'in about 1994'. In five years it has become the dominant theme in social policy and is now invoked to justify initiatives in the arts and sport as well as education, health and social security.

Though the concept of social exclusion first emerged in France in the early 1970s, it was little used there before the collapse of the once-powerful labour movement and the crisis of welfare over the past decade. It then gained popularity as a synthesis of traditional social democratic concerns about inequality and Catholic principles of family and community. According to one French commentator, 'almost everyone agrees that the economy is destroying society. Exclusion is the word to express this idea'.

At first social scientists were sceptical about social exclusion. However, Chamberlayne notes the 'recent trend towards a more positive evaluation' since it came to assume a central place 'in EU funding strategies', which have given a dramatic impetus to 'theory, research and policy'. Though an alien concept to Anglo-American social theory, the commitment to challenge social exclusion offers a useful complement to the 'welfare to work' policy that New Labour has adopted wholesale from the USA.

Though Blair has been criticised for returning to the sort of 'back to basics' sermonising that did much to discredit his predecessor, the striking feature of New Labour moralism is its low-key character and limited scope.

In his foreword to the teenage pregnancy report, Blair insists 'let me make one thing perfectly clear. I don't believe that young people should have sex before they are 16'. 'I have strong views on this', he adds, as though trying to convince himself as much as his readers. Yet eschewing 'preaching', the report is reduced to the tired old tactic of inflating the risks of sexually transmitted diseases to deter young people from sexual experimentation. This approach reflects New Labour's narrow and negative attitude towards sex and its degraded view of teenage relationships. It seems unlikely either to reduce teenage pregnancy or to contribute to forging a new national moral purpose.

The Social Exclusion Unit links the government's campaign to reduce teenage pregnancy to its New Deal - 'welfare to work' - programme. Given that 'teenage parents are more likely than their peers to live in poverty and unemployment and to be trapped in it through lack of education, childcare and encouragement', the New Deal is central to its campaign against social exclusion. Indeed, with its budget of £5.2 billion, it is the government's single largest new public spending commitment. Its goal is, according to chancellor Gordon Brown, 'to rebuild the welfare state around the work ethic'. He emphasises not employment, but employability; it is not up to the government to create jobs, but to encourage people to make themselves attractive commodities on the labour market.

Using benefits cuts as a threat, the New Deal offers four options to the young unemployed - subsidised jobs, education or training, voluntary service, or work on an environmental project. An authoritative study of schemes of this sort introduced in the USA suggest that they offer low-paid insecure jobs in competition with the lowest strata of the labour market (Jamie Peck, 'Getting real with welfare to work: (hard) lessons from America', Renewal, Autumn 1999). The experience of Britain is that the education and training offered is of low quality. Though the voluntary and environmental options have 'parity of esteem', they are little different from nineteenth-century public works schemes. It is scarcely possible to dignify such activities as embodying the 'work ethic', which implies some form of purposeful and creative activity.

'Work is the best form of welfare' is the New Labour mantra. Though intended to disparage welfare dependency, this soundbite also disparages work, which is not in fact a form of welfare at all. In its desperation to reduce the numbers claiming benefits, the government is pushing young people into bogus training and make-work schemes. Its affinity for Victorian values is apparent in its niggardly attitude to benefits, but perhaps even more in its echo of the view that picking oakum and breaking stones should have 'parity of esteem' with real productive work.

Blair's major criticism of the old welfare state is that it had become 'passive': 'a way of leaving people doing nothing rather than helping them become active.' Not content with promoting its moral message through the media and nationwide schemes, the government is sponsoring a range of local initiatives and projects which seek to inculcate the values of New Labour into young people considered to be at risk of social exclusion.

In preparing its inquiry into teenage pregnancy, the Social Exclusion Unit visited 70 projects in the UK, the Netherlands and the USA. The final report includes details of more than 20 of these projects which were considered to 'show promise' and these are offered as models for further initiatives. For example, CHOICES in Strabane, one of four such schemes in Northern Ireland, is described as 'a personal development programme focusing on the sexual health of young women'. It includes topics 'such as relationship, peer pressure, role models, friendships, communication skills, assertiveness, confidence, sexuality, pregnancy, contraceptives and sexually transmitted infections'. Similar programmes target young men, others focus on parenting skills or provide counselling to raise self-esteem and employability. The destiny of the generation of school-leavers since New Labour came to power seems to be to enter long-term therapy.

Far from being dismantled, the welfare state is being reorganised around the concept of social exclusion. According to one recent account, 'welfare has moved back to the centre stage of politics, not as a means of promoting equality or overcoming the failures and deficiencies of the market, but as an instrument for forging public morality' (Chris Jones and Tony Novak, Poverty, Welfare and the Disciplinary State, 1999). While traditional professionals working in established welfare institutions may feel squeezed out, an army of counsellors and facilitators are flourishing in numerous grant-financed projects.

The message of the new, modernised and flexible, user-friendly and sustainable local welfare initiatives is that citizens now have obligations before they have rights. You may be old enough to start a family or do a job, but under New Labour you are never too old to be treated like a child. Presented in the language of empowerment, the campaign against social exclusion reduces young people to the status of infants. It is degrading not only to them, but to the whole of society.

Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999



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