‘Big society’ – where’s the opposition?

The Opposition needs its own big idea to combat the "big society", or it will be the end of the post

On his "hard road back to power", Ed Miliband will have to forge a powerful strategy to counteract the "big society".

The "big society" is a slippery and seductive political story. It is all things to all people, with a lot of cuddly language about empowering citizens, sharing responsibility and devolving decisions.

Beneath its seductive language, however, the "big society" aims to shift responsibility from democratic government to "civil society", and to replace paid with unpaid labour on a massive scale.

Functions that have been funded through taxes and carried out by publicly owned organisations for more than sixty years are to be transferred to charities and businesses. If implemented as intended, together with the public spending cuts, it will mark the end of the post-war welfare settlement.

The Government's narrative is strong on "empowerment" but silent on equality. Capacity, access and time are all distributed unequally across the population, according to income, wealth, class, gender, ethnicity, geography and age.

There is nothing in the plans for a "big society" to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to participate or benefit.

The small, local groups that are supposed to be the life and soul of the "big society" are already painfully squeezed as council grants and contracts are scaled back. Now, thanks to the cuts, they are expected to ratchet up their activities.

Most of us would agree that the welfare state is due for an overhaul. We need a new social settlement that is genuinely progressive. By that I mean one that will narrow inequalities, promote social mobility, give everyone, not just the better-off, more control over their lives and destinies, build a culture of solidarity, and be sustainable in the long term. The "big society" offers none of these.

A progressive alternative would start with a government that guarantees essential services for all, according to need, not the ability to pay.

The role of the state will have to shift from directly providing most services to enabling others to do so. This may sound like the current rhetoric, but a new, progressive settlement would go well beyond anything the "big society" can deliver. In a nutshell, "enabling" should mean building strong, enduring support systems for of small, locally based organisations so that they can flourish freely.

It should involve promoting inclusive participation in local decision-making and activities. And it should develop co-production (a partnership between the "providers" and "users" of services) as the standard way of getting things done -- through charities and businesses as well as what remains of the public sector.

The new settlement will have to address the social consequences of tackling climate change. In the interests of sustainability, it should replace the largely curative approach of the post-war welfare state with a determined focus on prevention, to stop needs arising, recurring or intensifying.

This will require a big shift in spending priorities, but will ultimately get better results for citizens, reduce demand for essential services and keep costs down. Can the Opposition build a distinctive, alternative vision with a robust range of policies for putting it into practice?

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories