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.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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