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.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.