What’s good in the ‘Big Society’
Things are going badly for the Coalition, but we must keep our eye on the ball: the ball being Labour’s renewal.
Labour has to convince people it can be trusted to run the economy. It has to prove itself capable of decisive, authoritative leadership. But to be a government that achieves meaningful and durable change, competence and leadership must be entwined with a story about what Labour stands for and the kind of society it wants for the future. At the moment it does not have one. Labour could learn some lessons from Cameron’s Big Society idea and create a more robust alternative.
On 4 April Cameron gave another speech on the Big Society, announcing a £600m fund for social enterprise. Gareth Thomas, Labour’s shadow minister for civil society responded: ‘David Cameron’s Big Society idea has been widely lampooned ever since its creation’. Cameron’s own backbenchers are either hostile or bemused. The voters apparently don’t get it. But Cameron persists. Why? He says it’s because it’s what he believes in. The failure of his statecraft should not detract from the rightness of his belief. Society does matter.
For thirty years British politics has been dominated by the market and the state. But people do not live by the managerialism of the state nor by the transactions of the market. They live in families and relationships and networks of friendships in local places, and these make up society; they are where people experience all that is good and bad in their lives. The Big Society was Cameron’s attempt to reconnect Conservative politics to everyday life and to break from the brutalism of Thatcherism and its market utilitarianism.
Cameron’s pro-social politics are borrowed from ethical socialism. He dipped into environmentalism, and spoke empathetically about relationships. We are all in it together, he said. His detoxification strategy promised a Ruskin style, social Toryism for the new century. But Cameron did not carry his party with him. He believed wrongly that society was separate from political democracy, and he believed wrongly that laissez-faire and a dysfunctional economy are compatible with a strong society. His Big Society never grew beyond its voluntarism and it was dealt a mortal blow by the 2008 financial crisis. It proved to be no more than a house of cards in an economic storm.
Cameron’s Big Society has failed. However, Labour should be wary of lampooning it, because Labour is also disconnected from society. It shares with the Conservatives the public’s low esteem and distrust. And it has its own legacy of liberal elitism, social neglect and a mentality of command and control – and manic change – to deal with.
In the coming decade of fiscal conservatism Labour has to develop its alternative to the Big Society. It needs to be democratic and it needs to be founded on a politics of the common good. It cannot be top down and statist, but must grow out of the experiences and actions of men and women living in relationships, in family life, and more widely working together and sharing in society and the public sphere. It is about organizing locally to re-empower people through collective political action around the things that matter to them. The common good is not fixed or prescriptive, but contingent on the relationships of participating agents. It has no pre-determined end; it is always incomplete, always contested, and always sought.
The aim of Labour’s common good is to establish institutions that strengthen people’s public relationships and individual capacities for resilient, self-determining citizenship. Labour’s traditions of mutualism, co-operatives and political organising provide examples of collective forms of self-reliance.
It will win people over by giving practical help in improving the quality of their lives, their self-confidence, and the opportunities open to them. Local and city councils can provide strategic partnerships in self-help and community building, investment in enterprise and economic development, public cultural events, collective energy purchasing, community land trusts, and credit unions.
The common good starts small and local, with people learning from one another about how to make a common life together.
Read the second part of this piece here.
Jonathan Rutherford is editor of Soundings journal and professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University.