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.

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Leader: The angry middle

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern.

Two months after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, it remains conventional wisdom that the referendum result was largely a revolt by the so-called left behind. Yet this is not the full picture. Many of the 52 per cent who voted Leave were relatively prosperous and well educated, yet still angry and determined to deliver a shock to the political system. We should ask ourselves why the English middle class, for so long presumed to be placid and risk-averse, was prepared to gamble on Brexit.

Populism has long appealed to those excluded from political systems, or from a share in prosperity. In recent years, however, its appeal has broadened to young graduates and those on above-average incomes who also feel that they have not benefited from globalisation. The sense of middle-class victimhood has become a major strand in Western politics.

In the United States, middle-class anger has powered support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former drew his activist base mostly from young liberals. And while Mr Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was often attributed to a working-class insurrection against “the elites”, exit poll data showed that the median yearly income of a Trump voter was $72,000, compared with a national average of $56,000. (For supporters of Hillary Clinton, the figure was roughly $61,000.) It is not the have-nots who have powered Mr Trump’s rise, but the have-a-bits.

In the UK, similar forces can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, research shows that three-quarters of Labour Party members are from the top social grades, known as ABC1. About 57 per cent have a degree.

Mr Sanders, Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn have very different policies, ideologies and strategies, but they are united by an ability to tap into middle-class dissatisfaction with the present order. Some of that anger flows from politicians’ failure to convey the ways in which society has improved in recent years, or to speak truthfully to electorates. In the UK and much of the West, there have been huge gains – life expectancy has risen, absolute poverty has decreased, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a record low, crime rates have fallen, and huge strides have been made in curbing gender, sexual and racial discrimination. Yet we hear too little of these successes.

Perhaps that is why so many who are doing comparatively well seem the most keen to upset the status quo. For instance, pensioners voted strongly to leave the EU and are the demographic from which Ukip attracts most support. Yet the over-65s are enjoying an era of unprecedented growth in their real incomes. Since 2010, the basic state pension has risen by over four times the increase in average earnings. 

Among young people, much of their anger is directed towards tuition fees and the iniquities of the housing market. Yet, by definition, tuition fees are paid only by those who go into higher education – and these people receive a “graduate bonus” for the rest of their lives. Half of school-leavers do not attend university and, in a globalised world, it is their wages that are most likely to be undercut by immigration.

However, we should not be complacent about the concerns of the “angry middle”. The resentment exploited by Donald Trump is the result of 40 years of stagnant median wages in the United States. In Japan and Germany, median wages have not increased in the past two decades. In the UK, meanwhile, the median income for those aged 31-59 is no greater than it was in 2007, and those aged 22-30 are 7 per cent worse off, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To compound the problem, the wealthy keep getting wealthier. In 1980, American CEOs were paid 42 times the wage of the average worker. They are now paid 400 times as much. In the UK, the share of household income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1979. Because of our hyperconnected, globalised media culture, we see more of the super-rich, fuelling feelings of resentment.

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern, with voters oscillating between populists of the left and the right. The political centre is hollowing out. Rather than pander to the populists, we must do more to quell the politics of victimhood by addressing the root of this corrosive sense of grievance: entrenched inequality. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser