The Big Society

In 2010 I wrote for Labour Uncut on the Big Society:

“There is no such thing as society”. Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote from an interview with Woman’s Own actually came quite late in her premiership, in October 1987. It is David Cameron who, in just the opening few months of power, is seeking to make that statement a reality.

Whether reducing the scope of government through far-reaching cuts or through deregulation at every level (from removing speed cameras to abolishing the Audit Commission, both Tory government creations), the new government is rolling back the state faster than at any time in the last Tory administration. Indeed the pace of change is likely to be greater than at any time since the Attlee government of 1945-51.

October’s spending review will accelerate that change even further. The Tory narrative on eliminating both the debt and Labour’s “bloated state” has been bought by much of the electorate in the south east as there is little to challenge it. A by-election gain by the Tories from Labour in Kent last week is evidence that their national 42% poll rating is no illusion waiting to be swiftly punctured by a fresh face at Labour’s helm, in this part of England at least.

There’s no doubt that Labour is already starting its recovery in traditional territory, and its strength in London is heartening. Remember, however, that victory in 1997 after almost two decades in opposition only came with significant breakthroughs in Hampshire, Sussex and Kent. With Cameron looking for a swift reduction in parliamentary seats under cover from the AV referendum, the task of avoiding yet another long period on the opposition benches will be daunting unless we can win back seats there. To win again, Labour under its new leader must speak to both the aspirational estate dweller and the jaded Guardian reader, pulling the former back from the Tories and the latter back from the Greens or non-voting.

As much of the Lib Dem vote will go Tories as Labour along the channel coast and Weald. Here, pain from Tory cuts is as likely to be blamed on Labour spending as Conservative ideology. Without watchdogs or a critical media, much of the rapid realignment of the public realm will be allowed to pass unchecked, unless Labour acts.

To stand the chance of winning again Labour must have a presence on the ground in every seat where there is an outside hope of winning in 2015, not just listening to but being part of communities and their campaigns. A strong and active base must embed itself in neighbourhoods, not be remote. We cannot win by emerging only infrequently from GC meetings to deliver the occasional leaflet.

We must mobilise our newly increased membership. Only by earning trust and through word of mouth contact will Labour expose the truths behind Tory claims that cuts are unavoidable when, like in Brighton and Hove, they sit on millions in reserves just waiting to fund pre-election tax cuts whilst axing services like Connexions. In the “big society”, things will go wrong. People will inevitably fall, and fall hard, through the ever widening gaps in an increasingly threadbare safety net. Government will blame commissioners, commissioners will blame service providers, service providers will blame government.

When voters look at the news or out of their windows and ask “whose fault is this?” We must lay the blame fairly and squarely at the feet of a Conservative government which has pulled back the state from any meaningful role in making society better, absolving responsibility to the voluntary sector, faith groups and charities. Labour’s overly long and needlessly divisive leadership election cannot be resolved soon enough. With few substantial policy differences between most of the candidates, the party needs to unite quickly behind the winner and make best use of the networks, contacts and ideas built by all of the five campaign teams.

New Labour, Blairite and Brownite labelling must be left to history. The new leader needs to put forward a clear and modern Labour vision of a state that does build a better society, one that does step in to support, enable and promote better lives for individuals, families and communities, rather than leaving it to the kindness of strangers.

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