This paper reviews change and continuity in social policy up to summer 2011, contrasting the liberal collectivist approach of New Labour with the reinforced neoliberalism of the coalition government. Given the ongoing uncertainty of economic conditions and the obvious difficulty of forecasting the stability of coalition policy, it is not possible to arrive at a firm conclusion as to the sustainability of the recent change of policy direction. Nevertheless, in a critical assessment of policy in three areas—labour market governance, the life course and the public sector—the paper argues that the UK is witnessing an intensified neoliberal policy emphasis, a redrawing or abolition of minimum standards and failures to meet changing patterns of social needs. While the collectivist elements of New Labour’s social policy approach were contradictory in many respects, the coalition government through a withdrawal of the state and obtuse pronouncements about the big society is seeking to embed in the UK a stronger neoliberal approach to social policy. Flawed assumptions about the scope for traditional families and localised big society programmes to compensate for state withdrawal mean the trajectory of change is not clear-cut; preferences for collectivist and publicly accountable solutions to issues of social policy are unlikely to be easily eroded. However, ongoing policy change during the austerity crisis is already inflicting radical change with adverse impacts upon many groups of society.
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