It is always tempting for politicians to paint a bleaker picture of social decay than is really necessary in order to score points against their opponents. And it is a pity that shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Chris Grayling somewhat over-eggs his message today by suggesting that the gap between rich and poor in Birmingham is as bad now as it was in Victorian times.
Really? Says who? Where is the evidence for such a sweeping statement?
It is of course simplistic and ludicrously misleading to compare anyone living in Birmingham today, even someone without work, with people who lived here in the 1850s. Workhouses and debtors’ prisons have long since been abolished, the Poor Law abandoned and in its place the Welfare State at least offers basic survival for families on low incomes or without any income at all.
Indeed, Mr Grayling might more usefully have argued that it is the benefits culture and the difficulty of escaping from dependency on State assistance that continues to be a major factor in this city’s stubbornly high unemployment rate. Encouraging adults who have never worked in their life to take a job, and making it worth their while to forego benefits, remains a major challenge.
Strip away the hyperbole from his speech, however, and it becomes clear that the Conservative Party is beginning to give some serious thought to social reform. The question is, just what would a Cameron-led Government do to narrow the gap between rich and poor without pouring even more money at the problem in terms of tax and benefit increases? It is all very well for Mr Grayling to describe the failure to tackle wealth inequalities as one of Gordon Brown’s great disasters – not that the 1979-1997 Tory Government could say that it did much better – but what practical offer of help does he have up his sleeve for unemployed adults in, say, Sparkbrook without qualifications or skills?
Almost incalculable amounts of public sector regeneration cash spent in Birmingham’s inner city areas since 1997 seem to have made little difference to what the Government likes to refer to as worklessness. The best that can be said is economic conditions might be even worse without investment in New Deal for Communities and SRB projects, although there is no evidence to support such a contention.
Big challenges require big solutions. But it remains unclear precisely what the Conservatives are proposing to do.