Mark Littlewood

The Big Society is a threat to Labour

The Big Society is a threat to Labour
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If you think there really is a big idea behind the Big Society, then you agree with the unlikely pairing of Jon Cruddas (Lab, Dagenham) and Jesse Norman (Con, Hereford). The latter's new book, The Big Society: The Anatomy of the New Politics, attempts the seemingly impossible task of providing a grand philosophical narrative to underscore David Cameron's often amorphous rhetoric.

Cruddas and Norman debated at the Institute of Economic Affairs last night, alongside the IEA’s Professor Philip Booth and Dr Steve Davies. The ninety minute discussion did more to expose the philosophical fault lines in modern British politics than any public event I’ve attended since the General Election.

Jesse Norman is the sort of MP who gives even a cynic like me some hope about the future of our nation’s public life. He is independent minded, understands the value of ideas, is willing – indeed eager – to subject himself to fierce cross examination and has the charming ability to mix modesty with conviction. He thinks the Big Society concept is exciting, radical and transforming. It moves us beyond a tired rhetoric about the power relationship between the individual and the state to recognise the intrinsic social nature of humanity and the enormous value of voluntary institutions. He readily concedes that the Big Society is a “fuzzy” concept, but is insistent that it is not a vacuous one. In fact, he draws together an intriguing case that it is many ways the culmination of much traditional conservative thought and is thus a new idea with strong foundations.

To the surprise and excitement of much of the audience, Jon Cruddas thinks he might be right. This, he explained, was exactly the sort of territory and narrative that made him fear for the future of the left. If the centre-right started to understand how society worked rather than frame all their arguments in a “state versus individual” sort of fashion, then the existential threat to his side of the political divide was serious. Cruddas is not an archetypal socialist, he’s against the idea that lever–pullers in Whitehall think they can solve obesity problems in Dagenham. He’s yet to be convinced that the British left has grasped this.

Both Booth and Davies of the IEA struck a critical note. The Big Society rhetoric sounds fine, but it’s the shrinking of the state that provides the necessary space for civil society to flourish. There’s no amazing magic formula discovered by the Cameroons that suddenly enables the new government to use state mechanisms to pump an upsurge in civic responsibility. No doubt many of the outcomes desired by David Cameron and Jesse Norman would become viable and even flourish in a Britain with a radically reduced public sector, but the way to get there is as clear and simple as that – radically reduce the public sector.

I think the free market liberals are right. The overwhelming imperative of our times is to roll back the state. We can be entirely confident that private, voluntary activity won’t merely fill the void, but will expand beyond it in many, varied and brilliant ways we cannot even predict.

If you want to understand the new civic conservatism then Jesse Norman is the person you need to read and understand. But the really exciting thing is that these sort of exchanges of ideas are happening on the broad-based market-orientated “centre-right”. Jon Cruddas is right to realise how significant this is and the sort of threat it could pose his own political party’s prospects.

Mark Littlewood is director of Institute for Economic Affairs