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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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.