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There are those who believe marketing can change the world. Tony Blair, to judge by the efforts that have gone into selling the ‘respect’ agenda this week, is one of the converts.

But scurrying around the country and TV studios, touting new sanctions for antisocial behaviour and plans for a national parenting academy, won’t change people’s behaviour. Everyone knows about Golden Wonder crisps, but that doesn’t make us buy them.

There’s a high risk that respect, instead of being a value that is earned and appreciated, will descend into being little more than a slogan - or, as some in government are already saying with a perfectly straight face, a ‘brand’. And that brand will be associated not with human interaction and understanding, but with hit squads of police officers closing down properties from hell’ and dishing out asbos.

Mr Blair this week called for a ‘radical new approach’ to achieve respect. Beware. Radicalism sounds exciting, but to say that radical solutions are needed is to admit failure. And yet ministers have not been slow to praise what has already been achieved by many agencies using existing powers.

But more important than highlighting good practice is to give local people the confidence to tackle issues of respect in ways that make sense in their locality. In Nottingham, local MP Graham Allen is leading a debate on how best to promote ‘social behaviour’ rather than simply tackle antisocial behaviour. It says much about the erosion of local powers and confidence over the last thirty years that ministers feel the need to tell ordinary people how to interact.

If the respect agenda is to be anything more than an empty slogan, it must be local, it must be long-term, and it must grow from listening to people rather than whipping them into line. The government’s stress on enforcement rather than empowerment undermines people’s faith in the long-term efficacy of its approach.

As one commentator observed this week, the real respect agenda must be based on ‘optimism about the ability of people and communities to create civilised lives for themselves’. Who said it? That new icon of liberalism, David Cameron.

Julian Dobson, editor

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