Two articles in today's Prospect magazine highlight for me why the Coalition government should scale back promotion of its contentious Big Society brand - if it wishes to see significant take up of its best ideas. Stop worrying Labour will "capture" the ground. It isn't yours or theirs, it's our.
David Marquand uses an examination of the potential cross-party appeal of the philosophy of 18th century polician Edmund Burke to argue that he is the patron saint of big society (no capitals), and there are lessons for Left as well as Right. Big society is not a return to Thatcherism, which involved large-scale state intervention. David Marquand writes: "Cameron’s big society could hardly be more different. So far from signposting a return to Thatcherism, it signposts a departure from it. True, the signpost leaves more out than it puts in. At the moment, the big society is little more than a label, a dream, a confused if glowing aspiration. There is no knowing whether the notion can be made to fly in the harsh climate we now live in. But that is not a reason for rubbishing it, as most of the left seems determined to do. It is a reason for treating it as the opening gambit in a national conversation, to which all schools of thought—left as well as right—have an obligation to contribute. At this point in our history, above all, no single tradition has a monopoly of the truth. It would be a dereliction of duty to allow one party—or even a coalition—to treat the big society as its exclusive property".
I certainly agree that conversation could, ideally, be started now. Many individuals and organisations - like those who set up Big Society in the North - see merit in Big Society ideas about devolution of power, support for local social action and social enterprise. The problem is firstly, that the Big Society brand is now contaminated by association with the coming public sector cuts. It was conceived before those were planned - but it's no good saying that if you can't also articulate clearly what Big Society stands for.
That can't just be done by government: it has to be done by those engaged on the ground, and not many will stand up for a Tory brand that launched their manifesto. Secondly, civil society organisations that well understand this are unwilling to say: "Dave, great ideas, pity about the label. We are now in consensus Coalition land, so why not go for something uncontentious like Good Society, Civil Society ... people doing good stuff for others".
They are worried that their seriousy threatened funding will be cut.
The second article in Prospect underlines the problem: it's all being see in Westminster through the usual lens of party politcs, and who who can grab an idea for electoral benefit. Shiv Malik sets out "Why Ed Miliband should own the big society". He starts off by agreeing on the potential for consensus - but then destroys the possibility of achieving that by saying new Labour leader Ed Miliband should grab the idea for himself. My suggestion to government: stop trying to sell Big Society as a brand when it is (largely) a set of good ideas in a very tough environment. People are focussing on the environment (cuts), not your ideas. Help those who are doing good stuff on the ground tell their stories, but under whatever white label brand they choose: social action, community development, local enteprise, trusts, associations, charities etc. Then ask their permission to aggregate and celebrate those achievements. Come to think of it, that's not a bad idea for Labour to steal. Here's some relevant paragraphs from Shiv Malik's article.
There is a fourth way, to Giddens’s third. As both “red Tory” ideologue Phillip Blond and “blue Labour” thinker Maurice Glasman have argued, instead of redistributing cash, the state should be helping to distribute ownership. Whether you call it the “big society” or “mutualism,” the idea is the same: that the working and middle classes will reject welfare dependency as a long-term solution if, with help from the central state, they can use their own resources—savings, profits and earnings—to purchase businesses, homes, and the land they stand on, and put money into mutually-owned long term investments—everything from local banks to pensions to infrastructure. In other words, if globalisation cannot be reversed by protecting the border of the nation state, then mutualism can help root capital to make it harder to pull up and outsource to China or India in the first place.
Today, David Cameron is the politician most closely identified with the big society—but, as David Marquand points out in this month’s Prospect, the concept does not need to be party political. If anything, it has more resonance with left, appealing to the working classes who loathe welfare dependency. Yet it would also chime across society. Through the idea of community land trusts—non-profit organisations that acquire and manage land in order to provide affordable housing for local communities—mutualism could offer a lasting solution to Britain’s housing crisis. According to a recent survey for the Council of Mortgage Lenders, this would resonate with around 96 per cent of the population.
Modern day mutualism would also undercut the Tories on their right flank. Labour could once again begin to advocate for building a better existence—not through charity and guilty concern for those less fortunate, but through work, fair pay, lasting institutions, and most of all family, home and community.
Ed Miliband’s first speech to the Labour conference was thin on policies, but he doesn’t have long before he’ll have to come up with some. The emergency budget later this month will force positions to harden, and will be crucial to setting an ideological direction for Labour. In the Labour leadership race, Ed Miliband managed to steal his brother’s place. As Labour leader, stealing David Cameron’s one novel idea would be another devilishly canny manoeuvre.Read more at www.prospectmagazine.co.uk