Are we being unfair about “the big society”?

Taken as a whole, the coalition’s proposals amount to some seriously joined-up thinking.

 

Perhaps we need to be a little bit less harsh on Dave and his ministers about the "big society". As he's said repeatedly, it's something he feels really passionate about.

Ordinary people taking time out in the name of community cohesion and public-spiritedness to deliver services locally is a fine objective, and one that should not be sneered at.

What's more, the "big society" is not just a piece of glib sloganeering; far from it. Take a good look at the government's plans for Britain and you will find a coherent, well-thought-out scheme for national renewal.

"But where will we find the time for all of this in our busy lives?" squeal the detractors.

This is the clever part.

By closely consulting with his Chancellor, Dave has put together a fiendishly simple plan to create his "army of volunteers".

For George Osborne's Budget amounts to the unleashing of a veritable horde of potential do-gooders.

Shorn of their day-to-day "breadwinner" roles, hundreds of thousands of ex-civil servants will be able to devote themselves wholeheartedly to giving something back to their communities, unfettered by a salary, mortgage, car or any other fashionable trappings of postmodernity.

But the new Britain isn't just about pushy government compelling citizens to do things, it's also about choice.

The Mayor of London is doing his bit to this end. Taking Norman Tebbit's injunction at face value, BoJo has helpfully laid on bike upon bike, on which London's newly unemployed are free to get, should they decide that the whole "working for nothing" thing isn't for them.

We've heard politicians talk about "joined-up" government before. Now, finally, someone has moved beyond words to action. Dave, we salute you.

Getty
Show Hide image

Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.