David Cameron doggedly pursues his “big society”

The crowd at the Conservative party conference still seems unsure of the leader’s message.

David Cameron has just delivered his first speech to the Conservative conference as Prime Minister and the response in the conference centre has been muted.

Despite the excited buzz that preceded his speech -- with the main hall full to capacity over an hour before it began -- it seems that Cameron's central message is still failing to capture the excitement of his own party fully (and certainly not that of the country at large).

In many ways, this was a good speech, effectively delivered. It was essentially Cameron's attempt to frame the mission of his government: refiguring the relationship between individual and state; transferring power to the local level.

It's easy to be dismissive of the "big society" idea but there's no questioning Cameron's dedication to it. Even though it did not fare well during the election campaign (despite being launched to great aplomb) and many in the party believe that it should be dropped in the face of voter incomprehension, the Prime Minister has doggedly persisted in trying to explain what his vision means. Phrases such as "the big society spirit blasting through" will do little to clarify the meaning to the general public, however.

"Your country needs you," Cameron declared, channelling Kitchener. But this was a strange leader's speech: Cameron soon switched his message to that of Marvin Gaye -- "it takes two", government and public, to make his vision happen. At times, he sounded as if he was pleading with the country for acceptance and help. During the final section of the long address, when he turned his attention to this message of localism and "bottom-up, not top-down" change, the previously excited crowd seemed strangely muted, perhaps bemused.

In the conference hall, the most jubilant cheers were reserved for the Labour-bashing (at one point delivered in a staccato rap that is crying out for a YouTube remix), criticism of the EU and the revelation that Margaret Thatcher will celebrate her 85th birthday at No 10.

This was a sincere address but the "big society" message still hasn't caught the imagination of the party. You must wonder, then, how exactly the Prime Minister plans to convince the rest of the country of the need for self-reliance, particularly as spending cuts begin to hit.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.