Feb 172009
 

It’s Tuesday again, and so I wander over to the Guardian to read Polly’s latest, this time a piece about teen pregnancy (can’t fault her for the relevance factor, what with this tiny-tot father all over the news) and the failure of New Labour.

The failure of New Labour, you may ask? Indeed, she has said this very thing, although as is her wont, not in the same way most of us might say it.

She begins from the unstated premise that teen pregnancy is not a good thing, although her reasoning is a bit skewed:

Britain’s teenage pregnancy rates are appalling, with only the US worse in the west. Why? Because teen pregnancy tracks inequality. That does not absolve Alfie, Chantelle and their parents of their personal responsibilities. But the most unequal nations have the greatest number of dysfunctional families, unless the cycle is broken by determined and expensive intervention in generation after generation.

Teenage parenthood is linked to higher crime rates, poverty, and disadvantage in the children of teen mothers, as well as a greater likelihood for those children to become teenaged parents themselves. However, contrary to what Polly implies, teenage parenthood is generally correlated as the cause of those things, not a result of them. Teen pregnancy doesn’t track inequality; it precedes it.

Never mind that, though. We all agree, though perhaps for different reasons, that there should be less teenage pregnancy. Why has New Labour failed to achieve this?

First, and most disastrous, David Blunkett, at education, point-blank refused to introduce compulsory top-quality sex education. (No, don’t even stop to think about that one.) Only now is Labour at last introducing it in an autumn bill – amid fears it might get fatally delayed or succumb to the Mail’s mad anti-sex education campaign.

Translation: the government was pressured, not by the electorate, but by the Daily Mail, into not imposing a forced centrally-planned educational decree on schools.

Why else did they fail?

…money was found to provide good contraceptive clinics, but it was given to local health services with neither ringfencing nor monitoring to see that it was actually spent on teenage clinics. Why not? Because the government has been politically intimidated into ordering “less top-down” and more “local”, with disastrous results for many key programmes.

Translation: the government gave local authorities tax moneys extorted from the nation at large, but failed to impose a forced centrally-planned spending decree on those authorities.

The teen pregnancy story is a good microcosm of the Labour years. To halve the rate was a colossal ambition. It was a far harder target than halving child poverty – no simple putting of money into tax credits can change the deep culture of sexual behaviour. Of all the things the state can and can’t do, making people have sex only with the right people at the right time is the least amenable to Whitehall action.

‘Least amenable,’ take note. Not, as the rest of sane humanity might say, ‘least possible or desirable.’

And so, Polly finishes up, the problem has not been Labour’s disastrous policies of rewarding teen parents with social housing and child benefit, thus creating an incentive for teenagers to procreate, nor the complete failure of a patriarchal society to get over its Puritanical hang-ups about sex. No, no! The problem is that Labour have not done enough to force top-down social planning, paid for by punitive taxation, on a society that does not match its ideal of equality and conformity for all:

Labour has tried, but most of Europe, under more decades of social democratic governments, has worked harder for longer. Too often Labour thought it could move mountains with teaspoons, making Swedish promises with neither Swedish taxes, nor the will to force social democratic policies on to local services. There will be plenty more Alfie, Shannon and Baby P stories – testaments not to a worsening “broken Britain” but to a low tax, weak social policy century that Labour has only started to improve.

Fucking hell, Polly: even when you get it right, you get it wrong.