How should Ed Miliband respond to the Big Society?

As Ed Miliband shapes his opposition strategy, he will have to respond to the Conservatives' Big Society. In a contribution to OK's debate on the Big Society Challenge, Niki Seth-Smith discusses how Labour's new leader might shape a convincing alternative to Cameron's 'big idea'.
Niki Seth-Smith
18 October 2010

In shaping his opposition strategy, Ed Miliband will have to respond to the Conservatives' Big Society. In a contribution to OK's debate on the Big Society Challenge, Niki Seth-Smith discusses how Labour's new leader might shape a convincing alternative to Cameron's 'big idea'.

As Ed Miliband establishes himself as Labour leader, he will have to set out his response to Cameron’s Big Society.


On the one hand, he could align himself with those on the Labour side who condemn Cameron's 'big idea' as a cover for the cuts. This stance could win him support from those suffering at the hands of the coalition's ruthless deficit reduction programme, while the more cynical elements of the media would no doubt welcome the prospect of seeing the leaders at loggerheads over the idea. However, such a response would expose Ed to defending New Labour's 'statism', a term Cameron used in his Tory Party Conference speech. Moreover, the debate would then be limited to an argument over the Conservatives' motives, leaving Ed unable to engage with the potential behind the idea.

The Big Society concept has struck a chord, crucially by speaking to the public's willingness to participate and desire to be trusted, giving the third sector the recognition for which it has been striving, and promising a move away from an experience of state intrusion under New Labour. Certainly these remain only possibilities suggested by the Big Society idea, they are hardly yet established as what is likely to be delivered by the coalition. For Ed Miliband to meet the challenge of the Big Society as an idea, then, he needs to develop an understanding of the idea's potential. He should engage with the open and vigorous debate around the concept taking place across the political spectrum. And distance himself from those influential players who believe that Labour's only purpose in responding to the Big Society is to expose the Tories' hidden ideological agenda.

I have started an investigation into attitudes on the left towards the Big Society. Several key Labour figures have argued against the originality of the Big Society idea, instead denouncing the coalition for re-branding what are in their view Labour concepts around community empowerment and civic action, illegitimately usurping their traditional territory.

During her leadership campaign, Diane Abbott rallied her supporters around the call to win back Labour ground, upon which she sees the Conservatives trespassing under the Big Society banner.

And why should my party allow David Cameron and the Tory Party to appropriate the notion of supporting mutual societies and co-operatives? These were bedrocks of working class self organisation in the nineteenth century. The provincial building societies of the Victorian era represented the best of respectable working class self-help. And the co-operative movement was one of the founding organisations of the Labour Party and remains an affiliated organisation to this day. Mutuals, the co-operative movement and working class self help are very much part of Labour’s heritage. Why should we cede these organisations to the Tories?

In a recent openDemocracy interview, Tessa Jowell goes further in her endeavour to retrieve Labour ground, claiming the term Big Society itself for her party.

We funded voluntary organisations nationally - nearly doubling funding over 13 years, encouraging new mutual organisations and social enterprises, helped people take over public assets and services and launched social investment bonds. And so Britain is a Big Society today - generous, volunteering, caring, full of social initiative and enterprise.

While setting out guidelines on how Labour should confront Cameron’s “big idea”, blogger Don Paskini entreats the party not to enforce Conservative rhetoric by responding to the Big Society as if it were the political milestone they present it to be.

Firstly, don't repeat Tory spin. There isn't anything new about the idea of getting local voluntary groups to deliver services, organise communities and all the rest of it, and it is interesting that the Tories were so out of touch with civil society that they thought that they had come up with a new idea.

This viewpoint can be summarised as saying that, far from their being anything original in the Big Society idea, New Labour had thought of it all along. What’s new is the way this approach is now being used to justify spending cuts and to further the Tories' ultimate goal of shrinking the state.

Thus Tessa Jowell claims the term for her party and its achievements, saying the difference between the Labour and the Conservative versions of Big Society lies in the Tories' use of the concept for ideological ends. While Labour encouraged an active civil society in order to further their social democratic aims of reducing poverty and inequality, she says:

The Coalition’s plans for a ‘Big Society’ risk undermining the very infrastructure that gives power to local communities, because of its commitment to accelerated cuts in front line services and its ideological dedication to small government.

This position was expressed succinctly by Labour’s new shadow Foreign Secretary Yvette Cooper, who dismissed the Big Society as 'a big con'.

If we are to believe this argument, the Labour leader does not need to respond in a meaningful manner to the Big Society's proposals around community empowerment and the responsibility of citizens, as there is nothing new in these ideas with which to engage. Instead, he should direct all his attention towards exposing the concealed ideological agenda behind Big Society rhetoric.

Ed Miliband himself, however, appears to be siding with those on the left who wish to take the debate beyond an argument over Tory motives. In his first speech as party leader, he set out his vision for the Good Society and stated that a government 'unless reformed, unless accountable, unless responsive' may impede the realisation of this vision. The implication here is that Ed recognises a need to re-assess the relationship between government and the people, and wishes to distance himself from the traditional “pro or anti-state” framing, where Labour is positioned as defenders of the state.

In this, he is in agreement with Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, who has outlined the dangers of reducing the Big Society debate to such a simplistic argument.

Everybody in politics likes the language of "empowerment" but there are a range of different projects and choices. It is too easy to offer a caricature of "Fabian statism" and then call rhetorically for "power to citizens". Any serious debate which intends something to come of this is about the means, and also the question of the fair distribution of autonomy and power... ...What any coherent agenda (centre-right, centrist or left-of-centre) needs to do is to not accept a very simplistic and often rhetorical "pro or anti-state" framing.

Will Straw, editor of Left Foot Forward, called for a re-engagement with the ‘politics of fraternity’.

Cameron cleverly spotted that while the left had dominated the politics of equality for 65 years and the right had dominated the politics of liberty, the politics of fraternity had been left homeless after the Thatcherite crusade against society and solidarity. Despite successful measures by the Labour government to improve public services, tackle poverty, and lower crime, many communities feel far less cohesive than they did 30 years ago.The left must address this with a "new covenant with the people", in the words of Jon Cruddas, which puts Labour traditions of mutualism, cooperation, and reciprocity at the centre of its approach to public policy. The recent interest in the writing of Saul Alinsky and the work of London Citizens must not become a fad; it must underpin the work of the Labour movement in every community in the country.

The chair of Compass, Neal Lawson, has argued that Labour needs to re-awaken its willingness to trust.

The Big Society works because it speaks to a truth that New Labour only trusted the free market, the centralised state, or a combination of the two. It never trusted people.... ....Labour's task is difficult. It has to drop its binding adherence to Labourism; the creed that says one party knows all and does all through a monolithic state, but without giving up on the state.  So, the task is two-fold; to define what the state must do, and what it shouldn't.


Speaking on behalf of the union Unite, Rachael Maskell has suggested that trade unions should play a formative role in the creation of the Big Society:

...Trade unions have been built through relationships of colleagues standing up for one another in the community of the workplace, and ensuring that no-one is picked off or falls through the gaps. Perhaps the government should look to the trade unions, the largest movement of people in Britain as its model for the Big Society.

This points to why a debate around the Conservatives' ideological agenda in rolling out the Big Society is of fundamental importance. However, it fails to confront the reasons why Cameron's 'big idea' has elicited such wide-spread interest from the public and across party lines. People from all sectors of society are attracted by the promise of a move away from the experience of powerlessness under New Labour's 'nanny state', towards the establishment of cohesive, supportive communities, and the creation of an engaged, pro-active society.

To win the support of voters who feel like this, and their organisations, the new Labour leadership needs to shape a convincing Labour alternative to the powerful promise of the Big Society – regardless of whether Cameron is sincere or manages to deliver. Ed and his colleagues will need to engage openly with the Big Society debate taking place across the political spectrum and build on the more far-sighted proposals of his colleagues and resist the sneers of those who say it is nothing else but a ‘big con'.


Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData