Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Big Society, Good Society?

The recent article by Jon Cruddas and myself has attracted both criticism and agreement, here and on other websites. As Anthony Painter argues, there is an important debate taking shape. So I’d like to expand on the original argument which is that Labour has to build its own conception of the ‘Good Society’ and the best way of achieving this is to recognise that the future is conservative.

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The politics that will gain traction in the coming years will be one that values and preserves what is shared in common rather than a liberalism that promotes individual distinction and difference.

In the post-crash future people want new experiences, but they also want security. They desire self-fulfilment but at the same time they want to have a sense of belonging. Self- reliance is valued but so too is the reciprocity of ‘give and take’, and a shared ethical life. Labour must grapple with these paradoxes and develop a politics of the local, which is reparative and which reaffirms our human need for interdependency.

Here’s why.

The decades-long market-driven economic transformation of Britain nearly trebled GDP but it has been divisive, socially destructive and has left us on the edge of financial disaster. It has created overwork for some and chronic levels of worklessness for others. It has given rise to some of the highest poverty levels in Europe resulting in millions being dispossessed and a sharp rise in limiting long-term illnesses.

Britain’s wealth creating productive capacity is anaemic. In former industrial areas it is negligible. The private sector has failed to create jobs in any significant number. Government deference to an irresponsible and unaccountable financial sector has only made the problem worse. In government Labour avoided macroeconomic policies for productive wealth creation and instead skimmed tax revenues from the City to build hospitals and create public sector jobs. This strategy of state redistribution ended with the financial crash. It proved to be unsustainable.

Writ large across economic failure is the collapse of private sector capital investment. In the global order, Britain is an indebted over-consumer and under-producer. We sell ‘drugs and guns’ but lack a job-creating, investment-building, product-making strategy for the future. We champion free trade and an open economy while we lose all control over both. To cap it all there is the need to rethink ideas of consumption, production and our notions of prosperity in the face of global warming, resource depletion and peak oil.

Following its close-to-catastrophic electoral defeat Labour has to confront this extraordinary conjuncture. Where are its resources for renewal? The Third Way is over and Croslandite social democracy is of limited value. The traditional Fabian approach of enlightened elites pulling state levers to engineer social change is deeply unpopular. Labour must win back public confidence in its economic management, but the issue of the economy is not simply about technical competence. It is hegemonic and decade defining and it requires a fundamental renewal of Labour’s politics. Labour has to re-engage with its traditions and construct a new revisionism.

How to begin? An answer lies inside a political frame defined by two speeches. The first is Tony Blair’s 1994 conference speech which drew on the traditions of ethical socialism and New Liberalism. It set out the language and values for New Labour’s 1997 landslide victory – ‘community means what we share. It means working together’. The second is David Cameron’s 2010 ‘big society’ speech in Liverpool which can be described as the Conservative response to Blair’s speech. Cameron draws on the traditions of Toryism and the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott – ‘”Big society” – that’s not just two words, it’s a guiding philosophy’.

Both speeches represent a politics that places society before the market and before the state. But this politics has not been able to flourish. Labour in government and now the Conservatives have subordinated the social to capitalist globalisation and a liberal economic paradigm. The financial crash has discredited this paradigm, but it remains politically undefeated, and the state it created remains as unaccountable and as centralising as ever. In this hiatus Cameron’s ‘big society’ founders on the lack of a genuinely Tory political economy. The Thatcherite economics of Osborne and the Orange Book Liberal Democrats dominate the coalition, wrecking the conditions necessary for the Big Society to flourish. Labour is struggling to capitalise on this failing for it, too, embraced neo-classical economics and is now without a viable political economy. It is gravely weakened by its own pro-market reforms around welfare, education and health. These are now being taken to their logical conclusion by the Coalition. Labour can only protest lamely – ‘you’re going too far’ – bereft of any meaningful alternative.

Progressive or conservative?

New Labour described itself as progressive. The coalition is also radical and progressive. Progressives have seen no problem with the market nor with globalisation. What mattered was an open society in which markets would drive efficiency and be allowed to allocate opportunity. Government would help individuals maximise their social capital investment and competitive advantage. This kind of liberal progressivism shared Hayek’s contempt for conservatism which he describes as ‘a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new’. Liberalism, he says, is based on ‘courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.’ Hayek’s progress puts its trust in ‘uncontrolled social forces.’ It has done, and continues to do, immeasurable damage to people and society.

In contrast, a conservative socialism is rooted in the ordinary and daily life of people. It does not put its faith in uncontrolled social forces. Change that is done to people rather than people doing change, causes powerlessness, humiliation and increased levels of self-destructive behaviour.

Confronted with capitalist globalisation, it values strong local social foundations and radical democratic institutions. It values the nation as an imaginary community and a bulwark against the destructiveness of capital. It is a politics that deepens and extends association and solidarity in order to defend human relationships against commodification and exploitation. First is society, then the individual. First ‘we’, then ‘I’. First a common wealth then individual aspiration. First a society, then a market. First community which is the relational capacity of people to share in part the lives and experiences of one another. First democracy which gives society agency over state and market.

A conservative socialism is about the ethics of care and neghbourliness and it is for the ethic of reciprocity – do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself. It means an ethical economy of productive investment and wealth creation for a common prosperity. It is for reform of the banking sector and a cap on interest rates. It is not for a minimal or market state but for a democratic state that plays a major role in investment, infrastructure development and provides a guiding hand for a new green industrial revolution and a learning society. It is for the development and regulation of new markets, and a national system of apprenticeships and skills training. It is a state which distributes power, capital and wealth across society and the economy through democracy, partnerships, mutuals, association, different forms of ownership and greater employee democratic control of the firm.

Labour could profitably give up the idea of ‘progressivism’ and reconfigure the centre ground of British politics around a conservative socialism and a radical shift of power from the state, the market and the large corporation to the individual, to the local, and to civil society institutions and associations. Call it Good Society or ‘big society’, it shares common ground with the better traditions of Toryism, but it is the historic promise of the Labour movement.

The early years of New Labour – the pluralism, the ethical socialism, the stakeholding economy, the idea of a covenant of trust and reciprocity with the people, the powerful emotional language that reignited popular hope – created a powerful and successful story for Labour, but it is no longer enough. It’s not possible to create a politics of society without a new political economy that builds an alternative to the neoliberal model of capitalism. Talk about ‘rebalancing the economy’ evades the powerful interest groups who defend the status quo. Labour will have to identify the enemies of democracy and the Good Society and when necessary take them on in a way New Labour never dared attempt.

The next election will be about the deficit and the economy but Labour’s success will depend upon it digging itself deep foundations in localities, building an organising, alliance making movement, and developing a much broader political approach that encompasses culture and society. Easier said than done, but if it is to win decisive power it must define and then embody the common sense of the decade. 


The Future of community: The ‘Big Society’ or the ‘Good Society’
 takes place 14 February 2011 with Francis Maude, Phillip Blond (ResPublica), Tessa Jowell and Stephen Twigg with Mary Riddell as chair.

Photo: Brian Yap

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Jonathan Rutherford


  • could you define ‘power’ does it mean doing the organising or the telling (the passing and enforcing of Laws) and isn’t this what we pay MP’s 65k+ for when we vote? Civil service does most ? then Councils and all are swayed by corporate bedoings swinging the lead ( but in a can’t fight back surreptitious manner,from PR to downright corrupt practice that is so prevalent it is too hard to draw out.I mean look at MP’s expenses,imagine what detective work would reveal in corporate/Council practice !) Give one example of people exerting ‘power’ that does not use mechanisms of government as they exist? (apart from trade unions,which take a sub,that goes to Labour?)

  • BLIND SPOT WARNING 2 Jonathan, I wrote the article in the unnamed “other website”, namely the OurKingdom section of openDemocracy. Thanks for the link. And I’ll try and reply properly later, but please give us substance. Part of my specific criticism was that in its shift away from Old Labour, New Labour when it began did have an appeal to a modern version of national and British identity through its constitutional reforms, from Scotland to Freedom of Information, from Human Rights to the London Mayor. You should not miss this out or delete from the history. On the contrary building on a critique of the nature of the state, from its monarchism to its managerialism, is essential. In a rather hurt but generous comment (given that I had slightingly called your approach “childish”) you said that of course you agreed about democracy. Really? You can’t talk about democracy without talking about what it means constitutionally (ask the Egyptians). So here is your account of what was attractive about the early breakthrough of New Labour: “The early years of New Labour – the pluralism, the ethical socialism, the stakeholding economy, the idea of a covenant of trust and reciprocity with the people, the powerful emotional language that reignited popular hope – created a powerful and successful story for Labour, but it is no longer enough.” Sorry, you say you agree but where is it? One – just one but an important one – part of New Labour’s powerful attraction was its democratic and constitutional appeal to the Lib Dems and others. It promised an accountable state. You can’t just leave this out of the picture for a second time! There is a huge amount we agree on, of course. But I just want to make this point immediately.

  • Poverty will end by 2020 , now it will be sometime in 3020. new labour came in with a leader with his eyes on making a fortune, it came to him in the guise of war, now he is a millionaire and young men seriously disabled through war are being told they are fit to work. Sorry the difference today labour should have rushed over to the Tories, and said we will join your coalition, Miliband will grow a mustache so he will be different from Cameron.

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