Luke de Pulford works for the Whitehouse Consultancy and lives in London.
Is the Big Society bouncing back?
According to Oliver Letwin, it never went away. The Beeb quotes him as claiming that the phrase was shelved “in deference to our Liberal colleagues” but that “fundamental components of the Big Society” are discernible in all areas of Government policy. This follows hot on the heels of the Prime Minister’s rather grand claim that “Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago”. These are the first two mentions of the phrase by ministers in months, if not years. After a long and unforgiving banishment from the front benches, is the sound-bite of 2010 making a comeback?
As a face-saving exercise this makes sense. The rapidity with which the Big Society went from being the reason Cameron “gets up on the morning” to the policy-that-must-not-be-named was embarrassing. With much of the Tory 2015 message focusing on stability, consistency and reliability, it helps to be able to blame the Lib-Dems for this monumental flip-flop.
But if we start hearing more about the Big Society, it won’t be just to save face. There’s huge political capital to be gained.
Whatever your views on Steve Hilton, Cameron’s former director of strategy and Big Society enthusiast, he was bang-on about one thing – increasingly, political parties are going to have to find a way of doing more for less. This will mean greater civic ownership of public services, pared-down central government, mutualisation, more voluntary action. What Hilton and others labelled the Big Society taps in to the heart of a cross-party agreement about the future of British politics. Whichever party manages to plant their colours on this political turf takes command of a precious scrap of land in the centre of the political spectrum to which all parties are having to migrate.
The sharp end of the Labour Party gets this. Only last week, the New Statesman ran a piece by Opposition MPs Jon Cruddas and Lisa Nandy claiming that only Labour can build the Big Society. Lord Glasman, another Labour thinker, has made similar statements in the past. They realise that there is much to be lost from allowing the Big Society to become irretrievably Tory.
Fortunately for Conservatives, Miliband isn’t listening. Rather than attempting to craft a hopeful vision for an under-resourced and debt-laden 21st Century Britain, his disastrous first campaign missive opted for partisan bitchiness over substance.
As a piece of political strategy, ‘the uncredible shrinking man’ was inexplicable. Proof that Labour has gone insane, as one Labour loyalist put it. Aside from the questionable wisdom of targeting the poor Lib Dems (already on a single-digit hiding to nothing), the video concentrated exclusively on the most unpopular side of UK politics: party tribalism. In an age when only about 1 per cent of the electorate are members of political parties, voter apathy is sky-high, and poll after poll confirms that the public don’t like this sort of thing, it was unforgivably inept.
The poor old Lib-Dems aren’t in much better shape, having rounded on fourth-place UKIP. Presumably, Clegg and co feel that chucking around insinuations of racism and intolerance will enable them to re-gain the hallowed moral high-ground they so enjoyed as an untested opposition party. Yeah, right.
With the other two parties in strategic disarray, now is a good time gradually to re-deploy Big Society rhetoric. This time, it cannot be portrayed as a cover for cuts. It communicates a positive yet realistic message about Britain and claims for the Conservatives political ground that Labour wants. As the others rush to the fringes of party ideology to peddle their caricatures, they leave an opening in the centre, which, in the final analysis, is where elections are won and lost. CCHQ would be foolish to miss the opportunity.