Frank Field on where Reform needs to focus its marked influence next.
In ten years Reform, more than any other body, has changed how politics works in this country. An obsession in believing that more money is the answer to practically every problem is giving way to a debate that increasingly focuses on outcomes. How these outcomes are achieved is likewise becoming a secondary issue to most people. This change in the debate has been so pronounced that it is easy to underestimate just how dramatic it has been. Fighting an election, for example, on league tables of expenditure will soon be the pastime of only a fast disappearing political breed. Reform has given focus to the voter’s demand that politicians should never forget that they spend not their own money but that earned by taxpayers.
So where should Reform’s energies now go? Of course they need to remain vigilant. Any system would have more than a fair share of political recidivists. And Memory Lane holds many attractions to the politically feeble minded. But the sheer scale of our national budgetary crisis should help keep those malcontents in line – at least for the time being.
The think tank market remains, thankfully, a pretty cut throat operation. That’s where in part its intellectual energy comes from. But organisations whose names were once never far from being tapped out on the leader-writers’ keyboards are hardly mentioned in polite society. Reform will therefore have to run even faster to maintain its profile. It is obvious, to me, where the next political virgin territory is and where Reform needs to be the first in pitching its tent. Prevention, as the old adage goes, is better than cure.
That was the theme of the report the Prime Minster asked me to give him a year ago. The report, The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults, was also a full frontal attack on the idea that the only way to free children from inheriting the poverty of their parents is to redistribute income to the poorest households.
I happen to believe that the inequalities in income in our society are grotesque and that governments should have the narrowing of this distribution as a major objective. The extent of income differences between top and bottom is an offence to the fundamental dignity each human being should be afforded. Desirable, therefore, as the striving for a more equal society is, I doubt if it will have much effect on the poverty of lifetime opportunities of poor children which ought to be centre stage. I do not accept the validity of the messages like that in The Spirit Level, where correlations on income inequalities are presented as determinants of a whole range of social outcomes.
My report to the Prime Minister does not spread what is this basic philosophy of despair: that unless we make society more equal in terms of income we cannot do much on life chances. I argue the opposite. Changing life chances is possible within the existing distribution of income – through it is jolly hard – and by changing these life chances we will change the shape of the distribution of income. The weight of studies in this area tells the same story. Government strategies, like Sure Start, are good for raising morale and have no doubt helped some families. But they have failed to change the outlook and outcomes of whole classes of poorer families.
Surprising? No. The research shows that it is the home learning environment that is the crucial factor in determining life chances. And here is the next break with the conventional wisdom. The home learning environment can be changed despite growths in equalities of income. Of course it is easier to have a more positive home set up if money isn’t a mega concern. But, thankfully, many poor families show they can trump income and class as far as giving their children the best start in life. The question then becomes: how can we universalise these successes?
Here is the next stage in the debate and it reflects the similar changing one that Reform has done so much in bringing about: the move from an emphasis on money to outcome. It is, to put it another way, a change from emphasising macro- to being concerned with micro-questions. This transformation has happened before. Industrial policy used to be thought of in macro terms, starting from the centre and imposing a “vision” on firms. Mrs Thatcher’s view was that any industrial strategy has to start with firms and any policy should be built up from a grass roots level.
So how would such a policy work in respect to life chances? There are two parts. First, it is crucial that parents, and particularly tomorrow’s parents, know what the key characteristics are that establish the most favourable home learning environment, as the jargon goes. Reading with very young children, and talking to them in positive language (the richest children hear 37 million more words by the time they enter school than some of the poorest children) are just two of the characteristics.
This is the easiest part of the transition! The second, more difficult one comes with having bodies like Reform which, by keeping a watching brief on this area, constantly present new findings and research that builds up an irresistible tide of public opinion. And despite what some politicians say – that they are not for turning – the truth is that, in such circumstances, it is politicians who turn rather than public opinion.
This essay appears in The next ten years published by Reform