Jon Cruddas: Labour was wrong to dismiss Cameron's "big society"

Labour policy review head says the party can learn from Cameron's "pro-social politics".

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.

Labour policy review head Jon Cruddas praised the idea of a "big society". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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