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Living the Basildon dream

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As the political parties start to gear up for an election, does suburbia have any positive place in urban society?

In the 1980s, Basildon in Essex became both an electoral and media phenomenon.

The caricature of 'Essex Man' said more about the prejudices of both the left and right. The real interest of Basildon is that it represented shifts in the attitudes and outlook of important sections of the working class.

Harry Enfield's 'Loadsamoney' epitomised an old-fashioned Labourite, resentful that working-class people no longer supported the party. In characteristic fashion the workers were blamed, rather than an inadequate party with failed policies.

At the same time Tories, such as MP Stephen Norris, endorsed the same caricature, describing Essex Man in December 1992 as having 'a great deal of money and very little taste' ('MP fumes at Minister's Essex Man slur', Thurrock Gazette 1.1.93).

The two views reflected an agenda of snobbery and distaste for ordinary people.

Far from enjoying an extravagant lifestyle in 1992, two thirds of those living in Basildon earned less than £15,000. In 1997, 60 per cent were still on less than £15,000. If one takes inflation into account, and the fact that the working population is on average a little older, then wage levels have probably gone down.The jobs which have come to Basildon in new industry and the service sector have not brought loadsamoney.

Yet even if the popular caricature is wide of the mark, Basildon is a particularly interesting town. At the beginning of the new century Basildon remains an instructive example of ordinary British people to a wider political environment.

Basildonians were pioneers of the 'First Way', emblems of the 'Second Way', so what can they tell us about the prospects of the 'Third Way'?

Basildon is still an overwhelmingly skilled, working-class town but the skills of the people are constantly changing.The sons and daughters of engineering workers are now much more likely to be in financial services and computer software.

These very changes are the measure of the representative shifts in British life.

Basildon was the seventh, the largest and last of the post-war new towns. The first wave of new towners may have been moved to Basildon in a pragmatic wave of slum clearance, but mostly it was they who made the choice to move. They saw themselves as pioneers and they made a covered wagon the emblem of the first tenants' association. The motivation of the new towners is part of the identity of the place.

As Eric Moonman, who was Basildon's longest-serving Labour MP, once said: 'People who came thought there was something to aspire to in Basildon. They could do more, better and faster. It was like a little bit of America in Essex.'

The vision of what Basildon was supposed to be sounds nothing if not utopian 50 years on. In a speech given in Basildon in 1948, Lewis Silkin, the then minister of town and country planning, explained that: 'Basildon will become a city which people from all over the world will want to visit, where all classes of the community can meet freely together on equal terms and enjoy common cultural and recreational facilities. Basildon will not be a place that is ugly, grimy and full of paving stones like many large modern towns. It will be something which the people deserve; the best possible town that modern knowledge, commerce, science and civilisation can produce.'

Giving the people what they want is the basis on which parties and politicians have always been judged in Basildon. In the course of the generation following on from 1948, the Labour Party became associated with poverty and welfare - a party for losers that would not give Basildonians what they wanted: a home of their own and the opportunity to sort out their own lives.

This did not, however, mean that Basildonians suffered an ideological conversion to Thatcherism. For a short time there was an expectation that the Conservatives could deliver the material improvements and opportunities that Basildonians had always sought. When the Tories did not come up with the goods what little enthusiasm there was vanished. Even in 1992, the flagship policies of popular conservatism, such as privatisation and share ownership, had little impact. The exception was home ownership - 36 per cent said it was the best thing the Conservatives had done.

Between 1992 and 1997, distaste for government policy hardened.Some 39 per cent of Basildonians felt that the Tories had done nothing good. But this is in marked contrast to a general perception that life had improved - 47 per cent said the quality of their lives had improved compared with only 21 per cent who thought it had deteriorated. The simple conclusion is that Basildonians do not attribute improvements to an outside agency such as the government but to their own efforts.

But while believing that their own lives have improved and will continue to do so, the people of Basildon thought the prospects for the next generation are less rosy and the society in which they all live is getting worse. Just over half the people (46 per cent) thought the next generation would have fewer opportunities than at present, against 40 per cent who saw opportunities improving. The sense of foreboding became even more pronounced when asked whether Britain is becoming a better or worse place to live.

One in 20 thought Britain was a much better place to live while three times as many (15 per cent) thought that Britain was getting much worse.

It would be difficult to find a more poignant expression of the dislocation between individual lives and the sense of social possibilities: the inability to connect an individual project or set of hopes and aspirations with collective fortunes and endeavours.

Does it matter that there is a lack of optimism for Britain if many Basildonians feel that their own prospects are good? It does matter because the absence of a common sense of purpose undermines even the sense of individual possibilities. The old identities do not bring people together. Individuals are thrown back on their own devices and whatever hope there is - a result of personal endeavour in the security of a family relationship. But the erosion of a public life and an active engagement with broader civic concerns gives to the personal and family life a sense of being besieged.

The experience of the Thatcher period did not create a new set of allegiances. It has left nothing behind in the way of substantive institutions. But the Thatcher era did deal a final blow to the tattered forms of collectivism, which had long-since passed their sell-by date.What emerged is a topography in which individuals stand out in isolated relief without much reference to each other and with only the most minimal relationship to other institutions and organisations.

This presents an acute problem for policy makers because their best efforts are likely to be perceived not as guarantors of more opportunity and security but as impositions on individual lifestyles and identity. If Basildonians think about government at all they think it is a waste of money. Some 20 per cent of them thought the government should spend less money on itself! Government is associated with bureaucracy, excess and narrow selfinterest.

The acute disengagement from public affairs is a commentary on the capacity of public institutions to deliver high-quality resources. Such institutions are just not credible. Any replacements seeking to reengage public confidence must first overcome the legacy of the collapse of previous relationships of confidence and trust.

There has been a backlash against the Tories but New Labour is no more enchanting for Basildonians. New Labour has lost far more in the way of firm political identification among traditional Labour supporters than it has gained in the active support of those whose votes put Tony Blair in Downing Street. New Labour's cause is not helped by its top-down version of policy making, linked to the idea of 'joined up thinking'. In the old political arrangements, policy making came out of contested interests and priorities. New Labour assumes that there is no conflict of interest so all policy need only be the dovetailing of administrative options made possible through technical expertise.

Policy making is so much easier when people are not involved but it will be appreciated in the same spirit as previous initiatives: either with indifference or cynicism, for it has no measure of participation and no democratic kernel.

Alan Hudson is a senior lecturer in education and social theory at Canterbury Christ Church University College. He is the joint author, with Dr Dennis Hayes, of The Mood of the Nation: Basildon Man Revisited, Demos, 2000

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