The Left and the Big Society I: Sunder Katwala

How will the left respond to the clear challenge of the Conservatives' Big Society idea? Niki Seth Smith talks to leading people and institutions on the left to ask them how they see it, beginning with Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society who blogs at Next Left.
Sunder Katwala
20 September 2010

How will the left respond to the clear challenge of the Conservatives' Big Society idea? OK's Anthony Barnett has noted the Challenge of the Big Society and our decision to see it debated. Niki Seth Smith talks to leading people and institutions on the left to ask them how they see it, beginning with Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society who blogs at Next Left.

How far do you agree with the accusation leveled at Cameron and his followers, that their ultimate aim in rolling out the Big Society is not to tackle inequality, but to increase freedoms within the state, in line with libertarian ideology? Do you believe that there are Conservatives within the coalition who would genuinely prioritise a social democratic agenda of reducing poverty and income inequality?

There are certainly some Conservatives in government who are sincere in believing it is important to reduce inequality, but they appear to be in a small and somewhat isolated minority in the party, in large part because most fear that this implies accepting a social democratic worldview. One is David Willetts, who has written about changing his mind about inequality, because of evidence from Michael Marmot and Richard Wilkinson and others. Another is Iain Duncan Smith, who is clearly sincere about wanting to reduce inequality and poverty, but with a distinctive view (which chimes with right-of-centre instincts) that social problems have primarily behavioural causes, which means he tends to downplay social or structural drivers of inequality.

Very few Conservatives are actively in favour of poverty. The question is whether to give it any priority, especially if that ever meant trading off a tax-cutting or smaller state objective (particularly for Conservatives who frame "freedom" in purely negative liberty terms, and see that as the overriding ideological mission). Only a minority will do that. Few in the party would be threatened by David Cameron's hope that cutting the state could reduce inequality: that is a traditional right-wing argument (made by Samuel Smiles, Hayek, Margaret Thatcher and others) that creating a welfare state risks "crowding out" social impulses. (So centre-right Conservatives duck these issues by pointing to specific social problems - say the administration of tax credits - implying these are a wholesale indictment of state provision, without ever being clear as to whether they want a fundamental break with the current system. They tend to then say "we support tax credits ... we entirely support a taxpayer-funded free NHS ... we will protect all state-provided pensioner benefits" yet these choices are often driven by public/political barriers: there appears to be no coherent underlying argument beyond the political necessity of being in favour of popular things the state does, but against state provision as a principle).

However, offered the proposition of choosing less inequality if it meant sacrificing the agenda of reducing the role of the state, I think the majority of the Conservatives would find that very difficult, as it implies an acceptance of a social democratic worldview. If Cameron is right, they don't need to answer this question. But there is no historic or comparative evidence for the right's gut intuition that big states create poverty - clearly, that would predict very high poverty in social democratic Sweden and very low poverty in the USA, yet the opposite is true in the real world.

Has Cameron adequately engaged with the question of why the shrinking of the state in the Thatcher years coincided with a nation-wide rise in inequality?

No. David Cameron has always refused to give any substantive critique of the rise in inequality in the 1980s, because he has (to my knowledge) yet to utter a syllable of direct public criticism of either Margaret Thatcher or Thatcherism. Here is his (very polite) reply (in full) to the Fabians! 

That he does not answer the question is not accidental, as is very clear in the Hugo Young speech's careful historical argument and then sudden jump from 1968 to 1997. There is a simple explanation - party management. No leading Conservative frontbencher has said anything critical about Margaret Thatcher in public since the Peter Lilley lecture on the Thatcher legacy in 1998, when all hell broke out. This demarcates the electric fence of Cameron's modernisation, and much of the ambiguity about the big society is carefully maintained for this reason (as discussed here on For example, Cameron argues for less inequality; but also that he favours Nigel Lawson's approach to flatter taxes; arguing that Labour should have done more on inequality while rejecting redistribution as a means of reducing it (as discussed here on 

That this is a major tension has been noted by a range of other commentators, including Richard Reeves, who is now Nick Clegg's policy advisor, and who made this point in his Prospect article "A big unequal society". It was co-authored with Reeves by Phil Collins, the former Blair speechwriter, who would be among the centre-left voices most sympathetic to a substantive Cameron agenda that dealt with these points, and which is very in favour of the mutualist, decentralised liberal themes which are supposed to underpin the big society (as discussed here on 

Cameron argues publicly that the state redistribution was very successful in reducing 20th century poverty - "We can see that in the 20th century, the methods of the centre-left – principally income redistribution and social programmes run by the state – had considerable success in relieving poverty. It would be churlish to pretend otherwise." - but that this would not be true in the 21st century where these methods will increase poverty instead. He has never explained how this argument works (for which there seems to be simply no academic or comparative evidence at all), instead relying on anecdotes about, say, benefit culture, because he feels they will resonate.

To what extent has the coalition's Big Society hijacked ideas around equality, social cohesion and citizen empowerment from the left? How can the left reclaim this territory, and distance itself from an association with excessive centralization?

There are long and deep traditions of active citizenship and mutualism across different strands of the centre-left - Labour cooperative and mutualist traditions; the communitarianism of early New Labour; other centre-left Liberal strands among social liberals. There is a lot of interest in revisiting this territory. 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 (as discussed here on 

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. It is striking that this is strongly rejected by all informed civic society voices too, who do not think that state withdrawal is what they want.

I think it would help Labour in the future, beyond rediscovering its own traditions in this area, to connect their party dialogue with that among social liberals - who make distinctions between the democratic accountability of the state; the location of the state (national-local) and particular issues (the state's role in the economy, the relationship with the citizen, different public services) but are concerned for social justice reasons to reject a simplistic anti-state agenda. I think both Miliband's would be interested in this. (David Miliband once called it a "progressive fusion" of liberalism and social democracy, and I think a future left agenda which is both egalitarian and participatory can be found there). Richard Grayson has recently written about this as a LibDem social liberal critical of simplistic anti-statism.

Finally, from the findings of reports, including those published recently by the RSA and the Young Foundation, it would seem that there is little evidence for the suggestion that rolling back the state as proposed will lead to a more equal, empowered society. Do you feel the government is taking proper account of reports and research from independent bodies and think tanks in its formulation of the Big Society and its aims? Does the coalition have a coherent plan as to how they will measure the Big Society’s success (or failure)?

The "evidence-based" question is an interesting one. When the government is fighting with the Institute of Fiscal Studies, it is in a bad position. On the other hand, the appointment of Robert Chote will now give the Office of Budget Responsibility the credibility it has lacked. But there are some voices in right-of-centre think-tanks and commentators saying that the coalition will lose the argument if it accepts an "evidence-based" test of its distributional consequences without "reframing" what it means by inequality and fairness, so has to start arguing instead that these things can not be measured in monetary terms (without saying what the new tests are).

Our view is naturally that the government has to accept evidence-based scrutiny of the "fairness tests" both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats set for themselves; otherwise the central claim which was made for the 'Big Society' is being dropped.

Next: Neal Lawson of Compass.

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


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