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Beware the Big Society

A lesson for Labour in how not to sell a big idea

Now would be a good time for Ed Miliband to think about the Big Society. As opinion polls show more people seriously imagining him as prime minister, the Labour leader needs a compelling story about the kind of country he thinks Britain should become – and David Cameron’s flagship policy is a case study in how not to tell one.

The Big Society was never a bad conceit. There are plenty of problems that cannot be solved from Whitehall. There are wounds in society that proved immune, over 13 years of Labour government, to the treatment of being hosed down with cash from the Exchequer. The aim of looking for more imaginative answers in a renaissance of civil society might, in less straitened times, have united left and right. But in an election held in the shadow of austerity, Cameron failed to dispel the suspicion that the Big Society was just a pretty logo painted on the handle of an old Tory hatchet that was about to come down on public services.

Senior Downing Street figures now accept that the whole thing was inflated to appease the sceptical media’s pestering of Cameron for a signature idea. “We got bounced into making the Big Society bigger than it was meant to be,” says one Tory strategist. What began as rhetorical enhancement ended up as brazen artifice. It was a political boob job.

Lofty abstraction

The Prime Minister has always tended to see the Big Society’s problems as presentational – a blockage in the transmission of enlightenment. In reality, its failure expresses a more profound intellectual retreat. To oust Gordon Brown, the Tories had to pin Britain’s economic problems on Labour. So they told the seductive but facile parable of the maxed-out credit card: the country had let itself go through excessive spending and borrowing; a new regime was needed to yank the belt tight again.

This selective reading of history achieved the short-term goal of shredding Labour’s credentials to run the country. It dismissed as buck-passing Brown’s focus on the global forces that actually decide Britain’s fate. Now confronted with those same forces, the Prime Minister and his Chancellor have only mock-heroic pledges not to be cowed and petulant demands that eurozone leaders solve their own problems. No one, I suspect, at the recent G8 summit at Camp David asked Cameron to expand on the Big Society as a technique for governing in austerity.

While Cameron is trapped in a parochial account of the national predicament, Miliband has the opposite problem. He has a sweeping analysis of British capitalism’s flaws: the biases in favour of short-term profiteering; the corrosive social effects of unchecked market forces; the insecurity and low wages imposed in the name of competitiveness. But the Labour leader lacks a way of explaining any of this to voters who are more worried about bills landing on the doormat than paradigms shifting in the global economy. And he lacks a solution.

Some hope of filling the gaps resides in the work being done for Miliband by Arnie Graf, an American trainer of “community organisers” and one-time mentor of Barack Obama. Graf has been hired to pass on his technique for winning voters’ trust by cleaning up their neighbourhoods before promising them the earth.

There is also some prospect of life returning to Labour’s comatose policy review. It has been confiscated from Liam Byrne, shadow work and pensions secretary, in whose hands it made no visible progress, and given instead to Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham. Few people have dedicated more thought than Cruddas to the challenge of making Labour the authentic voice of those who feel disempowered and angry in Britain’s sink-or-swim society.

But Cruddas is, by his own admission, more interested in themes than detail; more a man for narratives than nuts and bolts. One grumble heard in the Labour ranks is that Miliband’s office is more than adequately staffed with academics and purveyors of lofty abstraction, when what it needs are bullet-point policies that will resonate around Britain’s kitchen tables. MPs are feeling exposed by the increased scrutiny that has accompanied the party’s improved opinion-poll performance. “It doesn’t lessen the obligation to answer the question, ‘So, what would you do?’” says one shadow cabinet minister. “It adds to the urgency.”

Vague space

A parallel frustration is building up about the control that Ed Balls exerts over the economic debate. In private meetings, the shadow chancellor vaporises dissent with intellectual scorn. That power has been deployed to make sure that members of Miliband’s team know their subordinate place.

Balls is not easily carried away by ideas, preferring numbers and stratagems. He barely disguises his suspicion of the whole “responsible capitalism” agenda, seeing it as too nebulous to be useful. One veteran of the last Labour government warns of the need for “cross-fertilisation” between the Miliband strain of moralising ideology and the Balls brand of street-fighting pragmatism.

At a similar point in his time as opposition leader, Cameron was struggling to define a project that many on his own side found irritatingly vague. He needed a governing vision that would somehow repudiate the things that people hated about his party while also celebrating the traditions that held it together. The Big Society was not a bad effort. It didn’t fail because it was a terrible idea but because it was stretched way beyond the limits of its natural political elasticity.

There are a thousand reasons why Miliband’s circumstances now are unlike Cameron’s then. Yet there is that same pressure to have a big idea – a proposed destination for Britain that will encapsulate the values of the man who would be prime minister.

One of the easiest mistakes to make in politics is to think that your opponents have nothing to teach you. The Big Society was meant to be a revolutionary call to arms; now it is just a rubric on a government website. Miliband should see that not as a parody of Cameron’s intellectual ambitions but as a warning of the difficulty in realising his own. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?