Building Cohesion: Trust, Integration and Welfare

Originally published at Pinpoint Politics

Although not new to the UK, governments of the past decade or so have put great stock in the virtues of integration – economically, socially and culturally. New Labour’s approach was to develop Community Cohesion policy, a direct response to unrest (popularly characterised as ‘race riots’) in northern England in 2001. Another key pillar of New Labour’s aspirations was the (ongoing) reform of the welfare state architecture. Social inclusion, welfare activation and the creation of a flexible, competitive workforce was prioritised. This went hand in hand with a reconceptualisation of social justice and inequality, as well as the employment of an alternative approach to tackling poverty.

Community Cohesion policy can be seen as contributing to this broad process of redefinition. Instead of focusing on socio-economic inequality and exclusion, as is more common with processes of social cohesion, the Community Cohesion policy framework focused heavily on socio-cultural inequalities. This was seen as more fertile ground for New Labour’s particular social policy ambitions and helped the party move away from what Robinson (2008: 17) described as the more intractable problems of socio-economic inequality.

Although the nature of adversarial politics means that parties in the UK are eager to highlight their differences, much of New Labour’s attitude and approach to the UK’s socio-cultural and economic issues has been continued by the Coalition government. The Big Society, although representing a particular brand of New Right conservatism, has in common with Community Cohesion the focus of ‘empowering’ communities and individuals to improve their own lives. Many of the Coalition’s welfare policies are continuations of New Labour’s vision. Welfare conditionality accelerated under New Labour and continues under the Coalition; Lord Freud, a key player in the Coalition’s welfare plans, was the author of a key report on welfare conditionality for New Labour.

Whither Integration?

The mood of the nation may not reflect this push towards greater multifaceted integration. Community Cohesion was utilised, particularly after the terrorist attacks of 7/7, to further develop the securitisation of the UK. For example, analysing discourses (and it only needs to be a surface analysis) in the PREVENT strategy documents highlights the use of the term ‘community’ to mean Muslim and associated ethnic groups (for broader examples, see Worley, 2005; McGhee, 2003). So when one reads about how ‘communities’ must live up to their responsibilities, it is obvious that particular groups are being targeted. This results in an implicit separation of groups, as opposed to integration. Other events suggest that perhaps integration is not as developed as some may hope. The 2011 riots in London, Birmingham and Manchester were triggered by the shooting of Mark Duggan, but this was simply the event that provided the impetus for further grievances to come to the surface (for in-depth discussion and analysis, see the Guardian and LSE’s ‘Reading the Riots’ project). As with many riots in the UK, the actions of all those involved were dismissed as mindless thuggery. Indeed, Home Secretary Theresa May at the time described those involved in the riots as a feral underclass. Furthermore, the UK has experienced a decline in public trust of the police, thanks to a series of reports concerning both historical and contemporary events. Considering the central role of the police as an institution of state influence, the decline in trust has serious implications for how individuals make sense of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. To use another, more economic example, why should there be such a focus on benefit fraud (which makes up a small percentage of fraud in the UK) when those who are supposed to represent the nation in parliament are seen and reported to be able to get away with ‘creative accounting’ of varying levels of severity?

The ideological Dimension

This tension is contextualised by aggressive austerity measures, legitimised ideologically in various ways. The beginning of the Coalition’s austerity project was legitimised via the mantra that ‘we’re all in this together’. Now we are to think of ourselves as resilient individuals in a resilient economy, able to bounce back from adversity and economic stress, as evidenced by the Chancellor’s last budget speech. The appeal to ‘hard working families’, alongside a well-established discourse of deserving/undeserving and stigma allows the welfare state to be rolled back. The line is that it is unaffordable, and it perpetuates dependence. The discourse produced by the state is that it is much better to invoke a spirit of camaraderie, and to encourage individuals to work hard in training and employment rather than languish on benefits. Likewise, it is better to invoke the Big Society, where citizens do things for themselves rather than passively and meekly relying on the state to provide.

The approach to community integration alongside the continued retrenchment of the liberal welfare state in the UK (though this is heavily contested – see, for example, Pierson) can be seen as part of a wider project designed to engender a particular kind of citizen: one that integrates, both economically and socio-culturally, in the desired fashion. To take an example from New Labour, the Cantle Report (the first report into the riots of 2001) stated that ‘common citizenship does not mean cultural uniformity’ (Home Office, 2001: 20), after which the reader is provided with a list of attributes and values to which the proper British citizen should conform. The Coalition continues the narrative through an emotional appeal to separate strivers from skivers. Such language is inherently divisive, and its use alongside other elements of social policy that are designed to foster community spirit, national pride and so on send mixed messages which are internalised by the citizen.

However, this ideological position was not incepted with the election of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The Third Way, developed by Anthony Giddens and espoused by New Labour, epitomised this inherent tension within the citizenship framework of the UK. The citizen in this context was expected to be a competitive and flexible individual/worker, as well as a pillar of the community, a devoted parent, and someone who actively participates in social and community life (see Ryner, 2002: 20). This shifting of responsibility (characterised as ‘empowerment’ in New Labour’s Community Cohesion and welfare reform policies) on to the individual and away from the state highlights the at least partial convergence of worldviews that have been seen traditionally as antagonistic to one another.

Convergence and Connection

Elements of social policy, as well as social phenomena, that are perhaps seen as somewhat separate should be understood as more intrinsically connected. The nature of targeting found in Community Cohesion and the Big Society, in order to privilege initiatives that aim to ‘integrate’ those seen as ‘outside’ the British ideal, are qualitatively not so different from economic policies that attempt to do the same thing. Implicitly labelling Muslim communities as ‘problem’ communities, so that the focus is on the actions of that community as opposed to the openness of the ‘host’ (i.e. White British) community, is designed at least partially to influence the behaviour of those ‘problem’ groups. Likewise, this could be seen in New Labour’s welfare reform in policies of conditionality and sanctions that were designed to ‘drive behaviour’ (DWP, 2008: 72) of those individuals who were seen to be making the ‘wrong’ decision regarding benefits and employment. This is reinforced by current drives towards financial literacy within a wider context of flexibilisation in the knowledge economy e.g. Finlayson, 2012: 75).

Therefore to understand the UK’s approach to citizenship, participation and integration since 2001, it is important to understand and engage with the multitude of overlaps and crossovers of policy areas that while containing many similarities and shared objectives are generally treated as separate in popular discourses. The compartmentalisation of these areas in public debates provides a political purpose, in that it enables one to focus on one particular issue to the extent that other contextual and complementary elements are obscured.


Welfare and cohesion policy in the UK represent a wider tendency towards a citizenship that prioritises strictly defined patterns of integration, both in the economic and the socio-cultural sense. To understand this tendency, it is useful to investigate and treat cognate areas as components of the same overall project of integration. This provides an alternative way of understanding key elements of New Labour’s social policy programme, whilst also providing a particular avenue to see the Coalition’s social policies within the context of immediately recent political history. It is tempting to see the current government as sharply different to its predecessor. While this is of course true on many levels, the multiple elements of continuity and evolution in the Coalition’s and New Labour’s approach to citizenship, welfare and integration in the UK provide their own thought provoking avenues of research and debate.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s