Blue Labour, Red Tory, Big Society
‘Does my society look big in this?’ proffers one oh-so-witty t-shirt. Listen to phone-ins and a common retort to anyone supporting government cuts, or is that supposed to be ‘efficiencies’, revolves around how exactly they fit into the idea of the ‘Big Society’.
A conversation may go something like this:
Tory Minister – “I’m afraid the welfare budget is unsustainable, we simply have to cut the deficit”
Stereotypical middle-Englander – “Oh, so those on benefits face cuts while bankers still earn massive bonuses? My Society doesn’t look Big in THAT”
And so it is that one of the projects that will define the next few years of British life is reduced to such ridicule that a mere hint of its discussion is met with the sort of bewildered indifference more commonly associated with a certain stereotypical female retort from which my favourite t-shirt derives.
David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ bombed as soon as it was announced; as a political buzzword it is unlikely to ever dispel the stigma of empty rhetoric it now possesses. But, beneath the accusations, often from Labour, that it amounts to little more than crude ‘cover for cuts’, there lies a deeper meaning. It is, of course, in the Labour Party’s political interests to ensure the ‘Big Society’, and with it the government itself, is seen as little more than an agenda for cuts but this short-sighted view is problematic in two main ways.
Firstly, the accusation that the Conservative Party, under the leadership of David Cameron and in the ill-termed ideological phase of Cameroonism, merely sees the values and beliefs that underpin the Big Society as a short-term ruse to disguise their genuine ideological allegiance to Thatcherite public service cuts, is to underestimate their capacity for both political nous and ideological incoherence. Phillip Blond, head of the right-leaning think-tank Respublica, rose to prominence on the back of his calls for a new ‘Red Toryism’, what he termed ‘communitarian civic conservatism’. In 2010 the Telegraph labelled him ‘a driving force’ behind the Big Society idea. Now seen as Mr. Cameron’s ideological guru, Blond’s argument revolves around two main issues. That the UK is, or was, ‘broken’, and that it is through conservatism’s realignment with traditional notions of civic community, or ‘little platoons of family and civic association’, that our society can be fixed. This is not, though, simply because conservatism is, as he argues, a natural solution to the issues that Blond claims, in his breakthrough book, have their roots in the Left-Right divide. Indeed, the rise of ‘Red Toryism’, through the ideas of the Big Society, can be seen as opportunistic not as a way to disguise the Conservative Party’s genuine ideology, but instead as a means of exploiting the absence of any genuine ideology from their Labour opponents.
Mr. Blond argues that the British public had been subjected to a choice between Labour’s welfare state and the Conservative’s market state, and that an alternative point of allegiance, a civic state should be the ideal. This is, of course, as much a rejection of the Thatcherite free market as state interventionism, and this is where the conservative propensity for ideological incoherence emerges. However noble or practicable the theory, the notion of a society in which we truly are ‘all in it together’, underpinned by traditional institutions, is undermined by the context in which ‘Red Toryism’ developed. Ironically, of course, were it not for the Economic Crisis of the last few years, Blond’s theories may never have developed, so heavily based as they are on the idea of a ‘broken Britain’. Unfortunately, just as Mrs. Thatcher’s overriding emphasis on ‘rolling back the state’ greatly undermined her desire for the return of traditional conservative social values, so the economic policies of this Government have caused not only the stigmatisation of their flagship social policy, but surely its failure. For all the talk that society must come together, that we are ‘all in this together’, any society undergoing such a level of cuts will struggle to unite. Perhaps it is Mr. Cameron’s intention to solve this, perhaps the ‘Big Society’ was seen not as cover but as the ideal remedy to cuts, but this government’s actions have spoken far louder than their words. As this week has showed us, the government has no qualms about abandoning social unity in order to press through their economic policy, beneath the talk of the need for fairness in pension reform, the tactic is quite clearly to instigate resentment towards the ‘generous’ rewards for the public sector while private sector workers struggle. Thus, whether it originated as a vision for Britain’s future or a way to ease the pain of economic cuts, it is clear that the ‘Big Society’ has, so far certainly, been unable to achieve the civic communitarianism it sought.
With that in mind, we move to the second issue with the dismissal of the Big Society as merely cover for cuts. This week Norman Tebbit wrote that with, in his words, “the Coalition in disarray”, Ed Miliband should seize the opportunity “to redefine Labour as a national, patriotic, un-doctrinaire party, of law and order and public decency, intent on widening opportunity and fairness rather than imposing equality.” This, though, was not merely the musing of a prominent ex-Tory. For months, Westminster has been abuzz with the rise of ‘Blue Labour’. Perhaps defined as neatly by Mr. Tebbit as anyone else, this emergent strand within the party has its figurehead in Maurice Glasman; recently made a peer by Ed Miliband. With this apparent convergence in thinking, it is ironic that ‘Blue Labour’, as conservatism has been since its inception, can be defined more by what it opposes than what it favours, with Glasman notably opposed to the ‘state managerialism’ that characterises Labour in the post-war period. Ever since Tony Blair’s infamous ‘New Labour, new Britain’ declaration in 1994, the general talk of a political consensus and ‘scramble for the middle ground’ has dominated Westminster and beyond. Now, it seems, both parties have realised it is not sufficient to merely engage in the battle for the middle ground, but that they must attempt to reshape it in their favour. While for the Conservatives this seemingly means adding a flavour of community to their dominance on tradition, for Labour it is perhaps possible to simply invert the equation. If the Conservatives are criticised in their ‘Red’ thinking for crude political motives, Labour’s flirting with ‘Blue’ thought can similarly be seen as an appeal to the ‘squeezed middle’ they fear they have lost through the erosion of trust in the Party. In reality, though, political machinations are inevitable. Both parties are seeking to appeal to the ‘squeezed middle’ and the working class, yes because it is in their electoral interests, but also because they believe that an emphasis on community is the way forward for both their party and for Britain.
With his ‘Big Society’ project David Cameron looks set to attempt to flog a dead horse for the next 4 years, at least. The ‘Red Toryism’ it characterises looks set to fail in the short-term as the idea is both tarred with political ridicule, and incoherent with the Coalition’s focus, and emphasis, on cuts. Ironically, the very party he may have hoped to render obsolete for a generation may be in prime position to capitalise on the foundations of community his idea laid, even in its criticism. The rapid rise of ‘Blue Labour’ represents an opportunity for the Party to both outflank the Conservatives on the right, and cement support on the left. Beneath the big thinking, though, the world of politics and its uncertainty leaves the very identity of the party’s leader, let alone his vision, in the balance.
Norman Tebbit may seem an unlikely proponent of Labour’s hopes, but his views should not be discarded carelessly. After all, he’s been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt.
Posted on June 30, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, Conservative Party, Labour Party, Looking Forward and tagged big society, blue labour, conservative party, labour party, norman tebbit, phillip blond, red tory, respublica. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.