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The Left and the Big Society II: Neal Lawson

How will the left respond to the clear challenge of the Conservatives' Big Society project? Niki Seth Smith is asking the leading people and institutions on the left how they view the idea, as part of OK's debate on the Challenge of the Big Society. Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, furthers the discussion, after Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society set the ball rolling.
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Neal Lawson
21 September 2010

How will the left respond to the clear challenge of the Conservatives' Big Society project? Niki Seth Smith is asking the leading people and institutions on the left how they view the idea, as part of OK's debate on the Challenge of the Big Society. Below, Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, furthers the discussion, after Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society set the ball rolling.

There is a feeling within the Labour party that in formulating the idea for the Big Society, the Conservatives have hijacked many of the ideas put forward by the left, regarding community action, social cohesion and tackling inequality. How can Labour reclaim this territory, and distance itself from an association with excessive centralisation? 

All political projects are contradictory and carry the seeds of their own destruction. David Cameron's project, based around the big society, is no exception. After their own wilderness years the Tories finally found a critique of Blairism that gave them some purchase and a way to move beyond both Thatcherism and New Labour; just as Blair's third way gave him enough space to triangulate between the new right and old Labour. Decisively, though, the hold of neo-liberalism remains - even if it is the discredited post-crash version.

But 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.  They never trusted people. Whether Cameron really does remains to be seen.  Like the New Labour elite he can't trust his own party, so the omens are not good. And also like New Labour, when push comes to shove, the needs of the market will always be prioritised over anything the big society requires.

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.  Labour has to stop seeing the state as benign, and instead see it as a vehicle that can be reactionary as well as progressive. In this way, they clear the path for a genuinely big society that both relies on the state and requires that the state does not crowd it out. Crucially, Labour has to determine a different way for the state to operate.  So, instead of the bureaucratic or market  state, it has to develop an accountable, responsive, and where possible local, version of a democratic state.

Do you agree with the accusation levelled at Cameron and his followers, that they are deliberately misleading the public in representing the Big Society's aim as reducing poverty and inequality, when the concealed agenda may be to increase freedoms within the state, in line with libertarian ideology? Sunder Katwala has proposed that Iain Duncan Smith and David Willetts are among a small minority in the party who regard reducing poverty as a priority; do you agree?

You cannot look into a person's heart and say whether they are good or bad. Cameron, as we have established, is a mess of contradictions. He wants to role back the state; end poverty and climate change; and win the Olympics, the world cup and the Euro Vision Song Contest.  Just like Blair, who claimed to be a communitarian, we cannot foresee which path he will take.  We do know he will take the path of least resistance.  Whether that returns his party to a genuine one nation paternalism, or perpetuates the neo-liberal hegemony, remains to be seen.  But I know which one I think is most likely!

Cameron says he is in favour of putting money into the hands of the community, and while the idea of the Big Society Bank has been floated, Demos' Progressive Conservatism Project has suggested that funding to deprived areas should be aggregated into a single endowment pot, which could be dipped into by elected members of the community. Do you feel that the Big Society has sufficiently recognised the success of existing mutuals and cooperatives, and will they build on these models?

There is nothing in the Cameron project that speaks to mutuals or cooperatives.  The last Tory government encouraged their demutualisation.  Right now, the FSA, under the Treasurer's orders, is placing a regulatory stranglehold round some financial mutuals because of the failures of the big banks.  One market for children's saving, in which mutuals thrived, has been cut adrift by the decision to abolish the Child Trust Fund.  If there is any danger that mutuals become counter veiling forces to the Cameron project, then they are unlikely to thrive.  But, again, he is sowing seeds in ground ploughed by New Labour - who saw mutuals as impossibly soft in a world of tough globalised markets.

Finally, to what extent do you feel that political and social forces outside of the coalition, including Compass, can influence the direction of the Big Society?


There is always scope to influence. We can do it by renewing Labour in the right way. We can do it by developing our concept of the good society, which requires a democratic state and a new political economy that puts the interests of society before those of the market. And we can do it by recognising that Cameron's big society poses an existential threat to the left - a threat much greater than Thatcher, who stupidly tried to image a world in which there was no such thing as society.  Cameron is much too smart to openly admit such a thing.

Next: Will Straw of Left Foot Forward

You can read more of OurKingdom's Big Society debate here.

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