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There’s no such thing as a “big society”

The Tories' rhetoric about progressive conservatism does nothing to mask the fact their ideas mark a

Amid the claims and counterclaims of this closely contested election campaign, there is one issue on which both Gordon Brown and David Cameron agree. This will be, as the Prime Minister told us in an interview in September, "the 'big choice' election".

But what exactly is the "choice"? The right-wing commentariat has sought crudely to frame the debate as one between "big state" Labour and "big society" Conservatives. Much has been written in the press about the "sharp contrast" between Cameron's call for "people power" in a Tory manifesto backing "social responsibility, not state control", and Labour's manifesto pledge to deliver "active reforming government, not absent government".

So are Labour strategists concerned at being portrayed, once more, as the party of "big government"? "The most striking aspect of this campaign is how Cameron's Conservatives are failing to convince voters and pull away from us in the polls," says one cabinet minister close to Brown. The ministers and party insiders we spoke to were optimistic. The tide against "big government" has turned, in the wake of a global financial crisis that dramatically overturned a 30-year political and economic consensus. Labour's response, as seen on page after page of the election manifesto it published on 12 April, has been belatedly to embrace a more interventionist role for government. Brown, after all, won plaudits at home and abroad when he intervened to rescue some of Britain's biggest banks in 2008.

Return of the Iron Lady

“The financial crisis raised fundamental questions about the right relationship between markets and governments, between economics and politics, between wealth and power," says Douglas Alexander, Labour's election co-ordinator. "And in this process, it was Conservatism that was found wanting. Cameron and Osborne can't privatise, deregulate or nudge their way out of a financial crisis."

For, far from embracing a post-crash revision of the party's fundamental approach to state intervention in markets, the Tories are instead staking everything on the idea of a "big society", in which people are given greater power and control over their communities. A senior Conservative HQ insider tells us that there is a "fundamental" choice in the election between a Labour Party that has been "liberated" to return to its "old [statist] instincts" and a Tory party that is heralding a "revolution" in the body politic to harness the "creativity" of the public at large. Indeed, the latter's manifesto, and the "big society" rhetoric so beloved of Cameron's chief aide, Steve Hilton, is said to be evidence that the Tories have returned to apre-Thatcher, even Burkean position. Yet the Cameronista catchphrase that "there is such a thing as society: it's just not the same thing
as the state" - reportedly coined by Samantha Cameron - echoes Margaret Thatcher, who said in her 1996 Keith Joseph memorial lecture: "I have never minimised the importance of society, only contested the assumption that society means the state rather than other people."

Speaking at the launch of his manifesto, Cameron invoked the spirit of the US Democratic presidents John F Kennedy and Barack Obama. But reading the manifesto, we were struck by the similarity of its language to that of George W Bush and the "compassionate conservatism" he advocated in his 2000 presidential campaign, with its promises of "local control" for schools and competition by private groups for the provision of public services. "I want to help usher in the responsibility era," said Bush a decade ago. "By encouraging communities to be responsible for their citizens and asking individuals to be responsible for their actions, we will renew our country's spirit."

For compassionate conservatism in the US, read progressive conservatism in the UK. But to parse the Tory manifesto, with its emphasis on society over the state, it might seem as if the Great Crash of 2008 never happened. How would the Tories' "big society" have rescued RBS and HBOS? What chance would Edmund Burke's "little platoons" stand against the short-sellers and speculators?

There is also the unanswered question of whether the "big society" will be popular. Asked at his manifesto launch where the evidence is that people want to be "prised away from the telly" in order to run public services or their local communities, Cameron could only dismiss the cynicism of the questioner and profess "profoundly" to believe that people want to be more involved in running their schools, hospitals and the rest. "The trouble with socialism," Oscar Wilde is said to have once remarked, "is that it takes up too many evenings." Cameron's "big society" gamble could face the same challenge.

Labour, meanwhile, is trying to bridge the gap between state and society. In a speech to the Blairite think tank Progress in October 2009, Liam Byrne, the influential Chief Secretary to the Treasury, pointed to research by the Harvard academic Robert Putnam challenging the notion that a strong society is mutually exclusive from a strong state. He compared the US states of Minnesota and Louisiana, at opposite ends of the Mississippi River. The former, with its stronger state, has a more equal society and far higher rates of social capital than the latter. "The strongest societies are the fairest societies," concluded Byrne. "And the fairest societies have strong states."

The line in the sand

So there is a choice on offer on 6 May. The manifestos have been published and the "dividing lines" between the two main parties have become much clearer. Labour wants to use an active state to support civil society; the Tories want to supplement a smaller state with a bigger society. Will the party leaders be able to attract voters to their visions? "The manifestos are not game-changers," one cabinet minister tells us. "But the debates might be."

So, who will triumph in those? Cameron, Labour insiders concede, is a natural in front of the cameras, having honed his skills in recent months appearing twice a week on WebCameron, the online Conservative video. Brown, in the unhelpful words of one of his predecessors, Neil Kinnock, has a "face for radio". "We have real concerns about Cameron as a performer," says one Labour strategist. However, another is more confident: "Brown has been answering questions in the Commons for three years but Cameron will now have to answer some questions in these debates."

In one of the best lines of the campaign so far, Gordon Brown remarked that "the future will be progressive or conservative, but it will not be both". Whether Labour can retain office depends to a large extent on Brown's ability urgently to articulate that "big choice" in clear, simple terms.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice