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Hey, Dave: our society's bigger than yours

We have an uprising that's far bigger and more social than Cameron could have imagined.

The words "big society" will be written on the tombstone of this Conservative government. They were written on the side of the Treasury - which is, in effect, the same thing - in angry spray-can letters during the riots in December. The people of this country will not mutely acquiesce to the mortgaging of civic society to pay off the debts of the super-rich. A new social spirit is on the move, but it is not the one that the Tories envisage.

As vital public services are being dismantled, people are occupying their local libraries instead of volunteering to staff them. Instead of wealthy parents setting up academies, there are education activists running free schools for all-comers in empty mansions in Fitzrovia. David Cameron's big society branding platform imagined us "taking responsibility for the people around us". He didn't imagine that we'd be doing it by standing together on picket lines.

The Tory rhetoric around the big society is breathtakingly patronising. It's not just the awful name, which makes it sound suspiciously as though our politics were now a slick children's television show, fronted by puppets. It's not just the glib way in which the parties in government are slashing training programmes at a time when youth unemployment is nearing a million, while holding lavish fund-raising balls where millionaire donors can bid for top City internships for their sons and daughters.

And it's not just the way they declare that we can no longer afford to care for our sick and disabled, while they somehow find spare cash for tens of billions of pounds in tax breaks for banks. It's that they have the gall to do all of this and then to suggest that it is ordinary voters who have lost their sense of social responsibility.

Guess what? Enforced hardship makes people band together and now we have an uprising that's far bigger and more social than Cameron could have imagined. Who are the authors of this revolution? Check your mirror.

The real deal

It's true that there are career activists and romantic student adventurers leading the charge. But the real revolt taking place in Britain involves every one of us, whether we like it or not. It's about whether you and I are willing to let our society be broken apart and sold to unelected global financiers or whether we have the courage to stake our claim.

The sort of dissent that petrifies the powerful has an everyday face. It's the 12-year-old who organises a picket of the Prime Minister's constituency office to save his youth centre. It's the woman with progressive multiple sclerosis who builds an online resistance network to fight the cuts to disability benefits. It's the striking call-centre worker. It's the 16-year-old with no hope of affording university who misses class to protest in front of the Houses of Parliament and the teacher who lets her go.

“David Cameron, can't you see? We're the big society!" chanted members of the protest group UK Uncut at a recent demonstration against corporate tax avoidance. Cameron is about to meet the real big society and he's about to discover that it's more than a branding exercise. It's about real people standing together to fight real injustice. It's called socialism.


Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide