Reimagining the Big Society: from ‘compassionate’ conservatism to radical socialism

Written early May 2015, after the 2015 general election

To say that the British left has had a rough week would be rather an understatement. The electoral onslaught of the Tories was only made worse by the fact so few of us had predicted it. Within our peer circles we had felt the seething disgust at the costs the Con-Lib coalition had imposed on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. We had heard the outrage at the divide and rule tactics which placed worker against unemployed, public sector employee against private, able-bodied against disabled, native Britons against immigrants. And after five painful years of austerity, justified with a narrative we knew to be untrue, we had seen the polls, counted the seats, done the maths and assured ourselves: The Tories can’t win — Cameron is out. At just after 22:00 on Thursday 7th when the exit polls were revealed, this illusion came crashing down. Amidst the despair, the tears and the dread at what this would mean for the next five years, questions started to form. How did this happen? How did we all get it so wrong? What do we do now?

The initial answers to these questions came thick and fast, and were entirely predictable. The Blairite right-wing of the Labour Party wasted no time in pinning Labour’s defeat on ‘a retreat into the Party’s comfort zone’, a swerve to the left, away from the neo-liberal politics of inequality which Mandelson and co hold to be the hallowed ‘centre ground’. No doubt this will ring true to many, as a claim the seeds of which were planted in the public consciousness during the post 2010 leadership contest, when the Unions’ man Ed Miliband defeated his Blairite brother David.

However, the claims that Labour lost this election due to a swerve to the left do not hold up to examination. Whilst in light of the events of last week I am wary of presenting opinion polls as evidence, pollsters consistently showed public support for those policies which have been denounced as ‘left-wing’ and ‘anti-business’ — nationalisation of the rail networks, reversal of NHS privatisation, a price freeze on the energy companies. A mass defection of support towards the SNP, standing on an anti-austerity ticket some way to the left of Labour’s line on fiscal restraint, demonstrates that Labour were not too left wing for Scotland. A swell in the Green vote further serves to demonstrate this. Labour’s commitment to work within the Tories harsh and austere spending plans after the 2015 election was in no way a left wing stance, and proves that this characterisation of Labour as in any way socialist is not grounded in fact.

With all that said, there does remain some truth in this argument. Whilst I do not believe, based on the evidence, that Labour were too left wing for the British public, I do believe that Ed Miliband and his party proved too left wing for the British establishment. Those who possess the money, own the businesses, write the zero-hour contracts, hold the shares in the energy companies and rail providers, finance the political parties and own the newspapers, it is fair to say, were not in support of Labour’s policies. Consistently, polling showed support for Labour’s policies, but abysmal personal ratings and a belief that Labour lacked ‘economic credibility’ after triggering the economic crisis through mismanagement and overspending. The protracted character assassination of Ed Miliband, and the constant re-hashing of the lie that the economic crisis in this country was the result of Labour borrowing and overspending on welfare and public services, were remorselessly pursued by the British press. The ideas of Labour’s irresponsibility and Ed Miliband’s incompetence, weakness and ‘weirdness’ were drilled into the public consciousness day after day for five long years.

The Conservative Party are nothing if not the political wing of the ruling class. The fact is, the ruling class have the power, wealth, and influence, and they will use these resources as necessary to ensure that they retain their position of privilege. The capitalist press and big business will never support a party or Government advocating truly left wing policies to reduce inequality and bring about social justice — to do so would be as turkeys voting for Christmas. In a country increasingly composed of isolated individuals, with the structures of community (from the local pub, to the church, and particularly the trade union) in decline and the concept of ‘neighbourhood’ devoid of meaning (for how many of us know our neighbours?), where is the communication that will combat the poisonous narrative which the establishment’s money buys and pushes upon us, with a message of hope, unity and solidarity? How do we fight back against capital?

The claim from a large section of the left will be as familiar to many as the Blairite grumblings previously cited — in order to win this we need to re-invigorate the unions, draw in new members, get people active, rebuild organised Labour. This is undoubtedly the case, but is much more easily said than done. Union membership continues to decline. Most members are not active. Turnouts are low, ballot results are not respected, picket lines are crossed. The big trades unions are seen by many, with some justification, as being bloated, out of touch, self-serving organisations that exist to serve the bosses careers rather than to fight for rank-and-file members. We can talk radical politics, general strikes, syndicalism and class-war within our own circles until the cows come home, but frankly nobody else is listening. In order to rebuild the spirit and the soul of the unions and engage workers, we need to rebuild ideas of community and solidarity which fell victim to the individualism and greed of Thatcher’s 1980s.

When David Cameron entered Government in 2010 with a program of massive cuts to Government spending, one of his first soundbites of choice was Steve Hilton’s ‘Big Society’ policy, advocating volunteers, charities and communities to take on the work of the now shrinking state. The Government, as Ed Miliband said at the time, was “cynically attempting to dignify its cuts agenda, by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society.” The real message behind the talk of a democratised and empowered “society rebuilt from the ground up” was clear: The state will no longer care for the poor, the sick, the weak, the vulnerable. Do it yourselves.

As the Government gears up to double-down on cuts to public spending and reduce what’s left of the welfare state to rubble, I believe we have little choice but to take up this challenge. Not in order to provide a sticking plaster or a smokescreen for the Government’s savage agenda, but as a way to resist austerity, defend our communities, protect those who need our help and build a radical, grass-roots support-network based on mutual aid and solidarity. Those of us involved with left-wing political parties, activist groups, unions, NGOs, charities, and religious communities could take this opportunity to really work together, not for our our own groups’ benefit but to build up the support structures which those struggling in our society need. I have no doubt many have done this already, and fabulous work is done within communities to help those in need — the challenge now is to turn this into a mass movement and to overtly politicise it.

Through moving out of our comfort zones of protest, campaigning, chanting and placard waving, and instead engaging with our communities to find out who needs help — whether it be food distribution, advocacy work, social care, or whatever else is required — and providing that help ourselves, outside of the state and without its authorisation, perhaps we can not only help people to survive the next five years and the erosion of the welfare state they will bring, but also build a network to spread our own message and counter that of the ruling elite. Perhaps we can communicate the importance of organised labour and union membership, communicate the truth behind the financial crisis and its causes, expose the lies and divisiveness of the Tories. Just maybe, we could rebuild the left as a radical ground-up movement with the strength, resilience and breadth to counter the huge advantages currently held over us by organised capital, and fight for real social change and equality both within and outside of the electoral system.