The contrast between Gordon Brown’s last party conference speech and David Cameron’s could not have been more stark. In an attempt to show he had not run out of steam, Gordon Brown identified 19 problems and announced 19 solutions provided by the state. A week later, Cameron attacked Labour’s ‘big government’ agenda 14 times.
Labour strategists thought Cameron was out of step. But we now know that his message was based on detailed and extensive private polling and that his message was more in tune with the public mood than Brown’s.
Post-election polling by YouGov for Demos shows that voters who deserted Labour felt government spending had reached, or even breached, acceptable limits and no longer viewed the state as a force for good. Voters didn’t see avoiding cuts as the priority, they thought that a lot of the extra funding was wasted and wanted to see greater efficiency and an end to top-down control.
During the election, Labour portrayed Cameron’s ‘big idea’ to create a ‘big society’ as an agenda for ‘DIY public services’. In the heat of the campaign it was a natural response but it wrote the left out of the history of community organising. It ignored both Labour’s support for the voluntary sector and the labour movement’s tradition of mutualism and cooperatives.
If the ‘big society’ was the wrong answer, it certainly addressed the right question. The trap Labour must avoid has been identified by David Miliband when he says that ‘if we are not standing for an empowering form of government, we stand for big government – and people don’t want big government.’
Even Compass’ Neal Lawson, a passionate defender of the state, now concedes that ‘the ‘big society’ is on to something: ‘The state does crowd out. It does make us dependent and powerless.’ Lawson argues that ‘the left was stronger when it relied on a range of autonomous, civil society, non-state organisations such as mutuals, friendly societies and trade unions.’
The future of the ‘big society’ is going to be contentious but Labour has to engage with it, critique it and be seen as genuinely wanting to see it succeed. There are already legitimate questions to be asked. Cameron’s launch of only four pilot areas funded by just a few hundred million pounds from dormant bank accounts makes the ‘big idea’ look somewhat tokenistic. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations says that a third of charities are living month to month without any cash reserves and the sector will need support to succeed. New social enterprises will need start-up funding and incentives to work in the poorest areas. Social capital and civic society will take time to build.
Ed Miliband says, ‘The problem of the “big society” is it is basically saying to people “it’s your fault”.’ His answer is not to cut back the state so that society can move in but to ‘enable people to spend less time in the workplace’ so that they can make more of a social contribution.
David Miliband, meanwhile, has accepted that Labour ‘allowed ground to be created for [Cameron] to pretend to occupy’. His idea of a mutual future for the BBC is a more radical engagement with the ‘big society’ agenda than anything the government has yet proposed.
The cooperative council agenda in Lambeth gives Labour a powerful ‘big society’ pilot scheme of its own. Other councils and community groups on the left have been engaged in the agenda before the Tories gave it a name and claimed it as their own. Labour needs to claim successes and not disengage. In short, Labour’s next leader needs to reclaim this territory and show they can create a better ‘big society’.
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