Protect and serve

Bill Jordan is scathing of New Labour's social policy, but has some trenchant suggestions for whoever takes power next week, writes Matthew Reisz

April 29, 2010

I've always been too physically active to be just an academic," says Bill Jordan.

A former county cricketer, he now runs a smallholding and, at the age of 69, regularly wins half-marathons and works three days a week at the University of Plymouth as professor of applied psychosocial sciences. He has taught pretty much all over Europe and written close to 30 books. His latest, What's Wrong with Social Policy and How to Fix It (2010), offers a wide-ranging dissection of where the current government has gone astray, and provides much challenging food for thought for its successor.

Jordan grew up in Ireland and then South Africa until the age of 14, and describes himself as "descended on both sides of the family from political elites past their sell-by dates". He has seen himself as an outsider ever since.

He completed his secondary schooling in England and won a scholarship to study philosophy, politics and economics at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was "surrounded by future Cabinet ministers and so on, all Tories. The privilege shocked me, helped radicalise me and made me want to do something politically relevant, so I joined the probation service and later became a social worker."

At the time, Jordan clearly defined himself as a man of the Left. He has often acted as "a poor man's lawyer, representing people against authorities, motivated by a sense of outrage about injustice". And he played an important role as an activist for the local Claimants' Union in the 1970s, he recalls, "when social movements were flourishing at a time of fairly rapid change, with unemployment rising and the emergence of means testing in benefits.

"As someone who had lived in South Africa and seen how the majority became economically marginalised and never politically enfranchised, I saw those kinds of division in society as something to be avoided at all cost ... The gloomy things I wrote then have turned out to be pretty accurate."

Such concerns also led Jordan to carry out research and write speeches on social policy for opposition politicians such as Harriet Harman, Michael Meacher and particularly Paddy Ashdown - to whom he bears a striking physical resemblance.

His academic work and writing focused initially on practical training for social workers, but soon branched out into wider issues. Although he rebelled against the privilege of Oxford, Jordan sees himself as "a typical product of PPE", keen to build links between politics, economics and the philosophical assumptions that underpin them.

Many people have examined NHS reforms, the credit crunch or the culture of competitive individualism. What's Wrong with Social Policy attempts to join the dots between these areas and sketch in a broad alternative agenda. Although an optimist by temperament, Jordan is adamant that "we've gone down a dead end and it's not going to be put right by a bit of tinkering".

It is safe to say that New Labour has been a huge disappointment to Jordan - and this goes way beyond the irritating fact that "talk of incentives and efficiency now comes into discussion of everything from universities to dustbin-emptying!"

"I was against nearly everything Margaret Thatcher introduced," he explains. "But because she was so brutal and so clearly represented the private sector, there were always centres of mobilisation, loyalty and solidarity in opposition to her.

"New Labour made (a similar policy approach) completely acceptable and respectable. It applied a modified version of her economic principles to the public sector much more rigorously than she ever did, in social work and the health service, and the result has been pretty disastrous."

Indeed, at one point in What's Wrong with Social Policy, Jordan goes so far as to argue that "a single totalitarian culture has come to rule over collective thinking and behaviour, in every corner of society".

Asked about this exceptionally strong statement, he argues that a single story now seems to underlie decision-making within universities, with a number of different institutions telling him that he had to make a good business case if they were to renew their contracts with him.

"I wouldn't mind them saying: 'Look, you don't teach enough', 'You're a complete outsider' or 'You're pretty well known but not well known enough'," he explains, "but they all spelled it out in terms of how much money I'd raised, whether I paid for myself. It doesn't matter how crappy, pettifogging or politically fawning your research is, as long as it raises the bloody money!

"If they just said: 'You're past it, sunshine, you're not really doing the business,' I'd argue against it, but at least I'd think it made sense."

This may seem like a rather rarefied complaint, but Jordan is on much surer ground when addressing the deeper failures of public policy.

His book suggests that Britain's recent phase of prosperity was "a kind of pyramid fraud", a fragile edifice "built on bets that housing and other asset prices would continue to rise". Through student loans, the government "peddled debt in much the same way as the banks, on the back of what turned out to be false optimism".

With this came a disastrous shift in values, as people were admired for an "independence" that amounted to a reliance on "bank credit rather than government benefits and services", and social policy was based on the assumption that our "needs for the services of a teacher, a nurse or a care assistant" were "no different in kind from (our) choices of a fitness coach, a hairdresser or a financial adviser".

What this philosophy meant in practice emerged in cases such as the recent scandal over mortality rates at the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.

"The trust was given Foundation status," Jordan points out. "It wasn't some backwater, a leftover from the policy of 30 years ago - it was supposed to be the vanguard, flying the flag as a centre of excellence, and yet it was killing people! And it wasn't that the public were unaware - there were hundreds of complaints - but the system was completely unresponsive."

Perhaps even more damning, Haringey's social services department was awarded a three-star (or "good") rating by Ofsted at the very time of the death of "Baby P" (Peter Connelly) in 2007. Mere tinkering seems unlikely to be enough to transform a situation where the gold stars are given to the people doing precisely the wrong things.

For as long as social policy is based on a model "focused solely on specific expertise or assistance, 'delivered' in 'packages' to individuals, in carefully measured and costed units", Jordan believes, the fundamental malaise will never be overcome.

Crises can be opportunities for radical rethinking or just a few mumbled apologies followed by a rapid return to business as usual. After the banking crisis, Jordan is clearly worried that the chance for reform is going to be missed.

So what would he like to hear politicians telling the electorate?

In general terms, he replies, he would welcome "roughly what Obama was trying to say in the US, with someone brave enough to say that we are aiming at a society where people feel they are equal and participatory citizens, sharing some common project and ideals.

"As far as the particular services are concerned, there are two things they could say: that the new government would value empathy and good judgement by professionals and not just efficiency and good management, and that services should become more genuinely accountable to the public, rather than accountable on paper to accreditation and regulatory bodies."

All this, as Jordan is well aware, may sound vague and idealistic. But perhaps that perception is part of the problem.

"When concepts such as well-being and quality of life were first mooted as potential contributors to the cost-benefit analyses on which (social policy) decisions were made," he writes, "they were widely derided as 'soft' and 'subjective'."

But what the financial crash revealed, he adds, was that hard-nosed "money values" were at least equally illusory, with "billions of dollars wiped off the prices of all kinds of asset".

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