It may come as a surprise to those who accuse me of being over-optimistic by nature that I must admit to being somewhat depressed shortly after the New Year; Labour having made some overtures to empowering civil society, seemed to be retrenching. First, there was Neal Lawson’s piece on the Good Society, which suggested a move away in the Party from the mutualism, self-help, and belief that characterised the early formation of Labour, towards a moralising, Athenian, utopian vision that seeks to get politicians to define what is human and then enforce their definition upon our economic, social and cultural lives. Second, there were rumours that the Movement for Change was being abandoned by the Labour leadership. And third, it seemed that politics had once more reverted to the playground in the run up to the Oldham by-election. Plus ca change.
But recent events have shown that Labour is realising that the question of how we empower and support citizens to take control over the lives remains one of the defining issues that we and our leaders will need to address in the coming years. Ed Miliband’s recent semi mea culpa, assurances that one of the Milibands will keep the Movement for Change alive, Jon Cruddas’ call for a return to a more settled English sense of community, and the elevation of Maurice Glasman to the House of Lords with his articulation of Blue Labour offer evidence that the centre ground of long-term political thinking and practice in the 21st century has shifted to how we shape our society as citizens together, rather than relying on politicians (or the media) to dictate to us how we should live, what we should think, and how we live side by side equitably. This is not to ignore the ongoing importance of economics and the financial pressures we will all face as more tax-payers retire over the coming decades, leaving fewer funds available for the high levels of public expenditure we have grown accustomed to over the last sixty years.
But if the next few years will see a battle for our purse, it is true to say that next sixty will be about a battle for our freedom, about how we live and how government supports and enables us rather than intrudes into our personal and collective lives, allowing us to pursue our own agendas and that of the common good more in partnership with it rather than in spite of it, whatever they may be. Hopefully this means that in future fewer policies, initiatives, or organisations will be too big to fail – which is sadly what can happen when you over-centralise decision-making and institutions, such that every mistake made affects millions of people at a time.
Blue Labour and Good Society are in many ways a lament for the true origins of the Labour Party before the rise of modernity and brutal Statism captured them. But in their strengths lie their greatest weaknesses. They often feel more like a reactionary exercise – looking back to pre-modern times, when communities were more stable, and people were nicer, but also when communities were more closed to outsiders – without a sense of how we can find our way there once more. They are essentially nostalgic about England: its trade unions, pubs, and extended families – even if these are not always seen as relevant or frequented that much by today’s citizens, who might prefer to congregate elsewhere offline and online. They suffer from a lack of economic literacy and do not seem to have a means of constraining, nudging, or encouraging markets to reform from within, and seems to stand only at the gates to the City looking in, decrying its practices and existence without a means to go beyond protest and to aid the real economy (for example through alternative forms of everyday financing such as models like Zopa). And their accommodation of faith seems very functional, a recognition that people of faith can do good things for society without an acknowledgement that Statism often made it difficult to practice your faith and to have beliefs without inviting suspicion about your intentions.
But these are still early days for the Good Society and Blue Labour. I welcome the new Peer and applaud him for his efforts, and look forward to hearing and engaging further with him. It is interesting to note that he is to be Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill, not to far from where I live in Shoreditch. Without reading too much into this, it is worth noting that in both Stoke/Stamford Hill and Shoreditch we can catch a glimpse of what the Good and Big Society might look like respectively, with their respective strengths and weaknesses. The one seems more semi-urban, whilst the other is close to the heart of the metropolis. One has more established communities living there, whilst the other is in a state of greater flux and population change. One is fiercely proud of its traditions, whilst the other is a home to high technology. That is not to say that each cannot accommodate and include the rural and urban, stability and mobility, or the past and the future. Both the Good and Big Society seek to put citizens at the centre and in the driving seat, not government nor the market nor even the social sector – important as these all are. And that, whichever way you look at it, must be a good (or big) step for us all.
There remain however risks ahead for this new consensus on society. First is Ballsonomics, that lingering belief that high spending and a big state in parts of Labour which has the potential to crush good society. The second is that in the move to decentralise power as part of the big society you simply recreate local versions of big government or other overweening institutions. The third is that Good Society ultimately becomes a cover for Big Government – direct (web-enabled and/or street-based) action that leads not to self help and mutual support but to a form of lobbying in which the assumption remains still that government should do everything.
Nonetheless and in spite of these risks the way forward is looking good (or big), despite the hard choices the previous government has left us, and the last few weeks’ media narrative. It is notable that those who might oppose Big and Good Society have given up doing so on the basis of policy and reason, and have switched to personal attacks and unsubstantiated Brownite spin instead – big government bullying tactics now being used in opposition. Far from being a sign of strength, this has a whiff of desperation. Perhaps Labour should lament its return as it in turn returns to its roots.