It's now hard to find anyone with a good word to say about David Cameron's "big society". Conservatives tend to dismiss it as woolly utopianism (or simply "BS"), while Labour attacks it as a rhetorical cover for the cuts. But in his essay in this week's New Statesman, Jon Cruddas, who is leading Labour's policy review, argues that the concept was a sincere response to Britain's problems and that his party can learn from Cameron's "pro-social politics". He writes:
New social evils such as chronic ill-health, loneliness and mental illness are devastating but they appear as peripheral to party politics or are simply ignored.
David Cameron recognised this in his attempt to define a pro-social politics that was concerned about people’s well-being, mental health and resilience. His idea of a “big society” was a recognition of the way our social relationships have become more impoverished ... We in Labour made a mistake by dismissing Cameron’s pro-social politics. We now have the opportunity to develop our traditions of reciprocity, mutualism and co-operation. The party grew out of collective self-help and popular movements of self-improvement. Labour’s social alternative must be about rebuilding Britain from the ground up.
It remains unclear what this means in policy terms, but it's evidence that Labour is keen to look beyond the market-state dichotomy. As Ed Miliband observed in his recent interview with the NS, "People are out of love with an uncontrolled market but they’re certainly not in love with a remote state." In response, we can expect the Tories to challenge Labour to support "big society" institutions such as free schools, on which it still lacks a clear position. (Although, as Miliband rightly points out, free schools have, ironically, concentrated unprecedented power in the hands of the Education Secretary.)
The most striking passage in Cruddas's essay, however, is the one that immediately follows. He writes:
Alongside this self-renovation of neighbourhoods will be zero tolerance of antisocial behaviour, bad neighbours, criminal gangs and the selling of drugs.
Such rhetoric ("zero tolerance") is at odds with most of what we've heard from Ed Miliband, who has sought to distance himself from New Labour's authoritarianism, but it hints at an alternative direction for the party. Some on the right have long warned that a Blue Labour combination of economic interventionism and social conservatism (tough on crime, even tougher on the banks) has the potential to win mass support. If this is the direction the policy review is heading in, the political consequences could be fascinating.