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.

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.