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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad