Social Policy, the Media, and Misrepresentation

By Bob Franklin | Go to book overview

Chapter 12

Bulger, 'back to basics' and the rediscovery of community

Bill Jordan

The need for strong, responsible communities is one of the main themes of New Labour's programme for reforming the British welfare state, and remodelling British society. Commentators seeking to define the essence of Tony Blair's political philosophy are agreed that communitarianism is one of its central features (Driver and Martell 1997; Smith 1997; Marquand 1998). After all, in a key essay, published in 1996, he had written of the need to promote a society 'where the community works for the good of every individual, and every individual works for the good of the community' (Blair 1996a: preface).

This chapter traces the origins of New Labour's conversion to the notions of responsibility, obligation and community to the media response to the murder of James Bulger, a Merseyside toddler, in February 1993. The circumstances of the murder itself-a small child 'abducted' by two boys aged ten from a shopping arcade, sustaining a number of injuries during a long and frequently-observed walk to waste ground, and then killed and dumped on a railway track-provoked an outcry about the moral condition of Britain. In the media soul-searching of those weeks, The Times editorialised about a shift in political discourse: 'even Labour now wants people to talk about right and wrong' (The Times, 22 February 1993). It was the first step in the redefinition of the social agenda that was propelled forward by Tony Blair, and that now underpins the government's reform of the welfare state.

I shall show how the media coverage of the murder, the arrest of the two boys, and their subsequent trial, all shaped the specific form of communitarianism-backward-looking, nostalgic, authoritarian and focused on social control-that now drives New Labour's programme (Jordan 1998a, b, c). The rediscovery of community began cautiously under John Smith, but accelerated as Tony Blair recognised a winning theme in his election campaign, and a central rationale for his government's programme for social justice and social inclusion (Lister 1998).

But this in turn was largely provoked by the ill-fated 'back to basics' initiative, launched by John Major at the Conservative Party Conference of October, 1993. At the time, his government stood low in the opinion polls,

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