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David Cameron's big idea

The Conservatives launch their vision of the "Big Society".

My colleague James Macintyre blogged last week about a piece in the current issue of Prospect by Phillip Blond, anointed by the NS in a profile last year as the Conservatives' "philosopher-king". James read Blond's piece, which urges David Cameron to reverse the rightward turn he has taken since the opinion polls began to tighten at the end of last year, as evidence that the cracks in the Tory leader's "progressive conservative" coalition are beginning to show.

James has long been sceptical about Cameron's claims to be a "moderniser" -- more sceptical, certainly, than many on the centre left, such as David Marquand, who argued recently in the NS that the left underestimates Cameron at its peril. ("There are neo-Thatcherites in his party," Marquand wrote, "but [Cameron] is not one of them.") So, for James, the misgivings of card-carrying "progressive conservatives" like Blond at Cameron's readiness to toss neo-Thatcherite "red meat" to his party are highly significant.

As was, it might be argued, Cameron's absence from the launch on Monday evening of Blond's magnum opus, Red Tory -- especially when you recall that Cameron had given his imprimatur in person, back in November, to Blond's new think tank, ResPublica. For his book party at the Carlton Club, Blond managed to muster a solitary Tory frontbencher, David Willetts, the shadow cabinet's resident intellectual, whose work on "civic conservatism" in the late 1990s is one of the antecedents of "Red Toryism".

Blond ended his cri de coeur in Prospect by arguing that it is still not too late for a progressive "rebooting" of a Tory campaign that seems to have retreated to a set of "vestigial Thatcherite instincts: an economic 'back to basics' campaign":

The fundamentalist ideologies of market and state are dead. Civil society is the future radical centre of British politics -- the "big" society Cameron rightly extols. And the poor can't be capitalists without capital. So the Tories must offer them a stake in the economy; a popular capitalism for all. And the Conservative manifesto is the place to start.

Judging by the beatific, vaguely proprietorial smile on Blond's face at a Conservative Party event I attended this morning, some of his prayers have been answered. The "big society", David Cameron's big idea, was the focus of a three-hour symposium involving most of the shadow cabinet.

The "Big Society Day" was designed, according to the bumf handed out to journalists, to "bring alive our big idea: building the big society as our positive alternative to Labour's failed big government".

Cameron had first broached this theme at length in his Hugo Young Lecture last November, in which he made two principal claims -- first, that it has been "big government", the dead hand of the central state, that has "atomise[d] our society"; second, that it doesn't follow from this "that smaller government would automatically bring us together again. A simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life unbidden is wrong. Instead, we need a thoughtful reimagination of the role, as well as the size, of the state."

He spoke in that lecture about "redistributing power and control from the central state and its agencies to individuals and local communities". And that language ran through everything he and his colleagues said today about the measure the Tories propose to use to build the "big society" -- something rather like the civil society, the disappearance of which is mourned by conservative (and Conservative) thinkers such as Phillip Blond (often, it has to be said, without sufficient recognition that it was the Thatcherite economic revolution of the 1980s, together with her long march through Britain's institutions, that did much to undo the bonds of civic association the Tories now say they want to restore).

Central to this new Tory vision is the "empowerment" of neighbourhoods and local communities. Empowerment is a word that fell, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, from the lips of nearly every speaker, and which appears to go proxy in the Conservative lexicon these days for that tattered old totem of neoliberalism, "choice".

Michael Gove told us that school reform, particularly policies that will make it easier for parents (or "communities") to set up schools, "will empower neighbourhoods". Chris Grayling promised that Tory policies on policing would "empower neighbourhoods by giving them detailed street-by-street crime maps". And Caroline Spelman said the Conservatives will "empower neighbourhood groups by giving them the power to design their own local planning strategy".

All this amounted, David Cameron said in a speech that closed the event, to a "redistribution of power from the central state to local communities".

What is to be done?

Other policies announced included the creation of a "Big Society bank" that would capitalise the voluntary organisations to which responsibility for delivering services would be devolved, and the establishment of "National Centres for Community Organising", which would fund the training of 5,000 community organisers.

The model here is an American one, borrowed from Saul Alinsky, a significant influence on the most famous community organiser of all, one Barack Obama. Cameron even mentioned London Citizens, the network of community organisations, reference to which now seems to be de rigueur in speeches by policitians of all stripes. (It's also where the former cabinet minister James Purnell is retraining . . . as a community organiser.)

What should the left in general, and Labour in particular, make of all this? Well, for one thing, the problem with appealing to this model, as one questioner pointed out, is that the reason community organisers play such an important role in American inner cities, in particular, is that there is no welfare state in those areas to protect the most needy when the economic weather turns bad. And it's hard for many on the left not to suspect that all that stirring rhetoric of "empowerment" is merely Thatcherism in disguise.

For some in Cameron's shadow cabinet, that is probably true. But it would be a disaster for Labour to allow Cameron to depict it, as he did today, as the party of the clunking fist of the central state, whose "natural instinct" is always to "increase the size of the state".

For one thing, some of the Tory rhetoric around the bloated quangocracy and, yes, even the "post-bureaucratic age" does chime with the mood of a populace tired, as David Marquand puts it, "of incessant badgering by bureaucratic busybodies".

I think Marquand is right to suggest that the "big society" is a challenge to Labour, and for the centre left more generally. But it's one that it can meet head-on. Marquand ended his essay on Cameron with this call to arms:

Instead of refighting the battles of the 1980s and trundling out the mouldering corpse of statist collectivism at every opportunity, Labour would do well to battle with Cameron on the ground he hopes to make his own. As Anthony Crosland used to say, the party should never forget that anarchist blood runs in its veins.

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