Big society and Thatcher revised

Big society is characterised only by what it is not; that being “top-down, top-heavy, controlling” government.

There are plans to give people more say in how local money is spent, but guarantee that you will be listened to will probably be as likely as it is now.

You can get a group of people to lobby this or that and you have every bit of chance to be heard; big society might just be a name to this, but the option to gather a group of people to either demand spending on a school, to stop the closure of a post office, or oppose the building of nuclear generator outside your house exists today.

Is it possible that what was meant to be a rejection of Thatcher’s famous comment that there is no society is a return by other means; since big society is empty and vacuous and is predicated in the negative (that is, by what it is not and not what it is) perhaps there is no such thing as big society.

David Cameron insists that big society will be something like the following:

a broad agenda of decentralising power, expanding the voluntary sector and encouraging people to take more responsibility for their lives and neighbourhood.

I’ll say it’s broad: state cut back, working for free and “responsibility” – a word used as if created anew. But it has been uttered before of course.

Margaret Thatcher, in that speech, which big society is supposedly a rejection of, said:

There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

Exactly the same; a game of guesses and fingers crossed that better off people will help the lesser off under the guise of self-responsibility; in other words Victorian philanthropy.

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Fabian Society Labour party leadership hustings

In the copy of progress magazine that I stole from the Fabians’ leadership hustings tonight, Richard Angell interviews David Miliband about his candidacy for the Labour leadership.

In it, there is a quote that just about sums up his campaign:

In his first weekend as leadership contender, the former aide to Tony Blair appears to be distancing himself from New Labour with his call for the party to become ‘Next Labour’.

Miliband the elder is the least comfortable candidate with really identifying where the New Labour project, to which he is linked – despite what the above says – failed. He is also the least comfortable candidate when explaining where he wants to see the party go to, in order to change its image from, as Andy Burnham pointed out during the debate, “pro-big business without being pro-ordinary people”.

This comes through in the very New Labour quote above; meaningless symbolism and clap in the words “Next Labour” – it is hard to even make sense of what this could mean. Unlike what the interviewer says, it reveals no distancing whatsoever.

David Miliband went further in his soundbite babblery hatchet job with his opening statement. Among other vague notions he told the audience of Fabians:

the question for us is how we turn the poetry of values into the prose of real change in people’s lives

It didn’t get much better for him, stumbling over safe and habitual epithets, nervous smiles and uncomfortable hand gestures towards Dianne Abbott to his left (!).

A well-known blogger I got talking to recently, toying with whether to have Dave Miliband as his first choice candidate when the party comes to vote, told me that all candidates are trying to weave leftist tenets into their gamut, but nobody is reaching to the right. After wiping up the spillages I had made after hearing that, I realised that nobody else in the party but David Miliband was someone able to do both; someone to remind the party of its regretful right wing flirting past, and one who says through gritted teeth things we on the left vaguely want to hear, but see straight through it when uttered from his mouth. He reminded the audience tonight of how right I am (even if I do say so myself).

After answers to phantom questions about concerns to family life for MPs, agreement across the board about the 10p tax, Burnham’s reception of slow hand clapping for his uncommitted and nervous comments on immigration and the war in Iraq, and boring questions on women MPs and voting systems (boring, only because we already know the answer in advance; for more women; AV system) – not to mention Ed Balls’ mistimed jokes, met with flapping hands from Ellie Gellard in the front row – audience members with a little more blood lust were wondering where those questions aimed to stump our candidates were going to come from.

The best we got was a question from the audience on what measure the candidates wish they could delete from Labour’s past, which worryingly turned out to be the question all candidates had some of their finest moments with (with the exception of, again, David Miliband, who was clearly keen on being the voice of the past, New Labour legacy intact).

It was Andy Burnham, and not Dianne Abbott, who played the divider tonight, to the surprise of many people I have spoken to. He was the one laying himself open and making friends and enemies along the way, whether on the clergy in the Lords (which he opposes, but will explain his reasons in confession for, by his own jesty admission), to selection in schools to his own class and upbringing in Manchester.

Abbott was playing it far more pluralistic than many had anticipated, being personable and less antagonistic than many would hope (leaving that space for Burham).

Ed Balls was barely clear all evening, most comfortable when he was talking absolute jibberish and complaining about criticism he has had to endure as Minister. His attempts to re-write his past support for the war in Iraq, which he now admits was a mistake, were badly executed when he told the audience: “we should say sorry and move on” – if only life were so easy. These are not the words of a man in touch.

This leaves me to talk about the candidate who won the debate hands down tonight. Ed Miliband wanted to drive home the message that he was a “values driven” candidate, calling for Lords reform, a 50% female shadow cabinet, a need to govern markets by democracy, a look at top pay in the private sector, a high pay commission, a living wage, and the need to criticise capitalism from a democratic perspective.

Emma Burnell asked the pivtal question at the end of the night: “are you a Socialist – and what does the word mean to you?” David Miliband of course skirted round the issue, saying he was happy to accept what is written on the back of Labour membership cards (democratic socialist), while the others used the word to explain why they opposed social barriers. Ed Miliband used the most colourful language when he noted that:

Being a socialist for me is about being willing to criticise capitalism – and saying capitalism produces many injustices, which politics must tackle. It is not about abolishing capitalism but it is about changing it.

Balls noted having no truck with barriers, Burnham quoted Billy Bragg and Abbott spoke about the marginalisation of the minority working class.

These events are about Labour members and supporters working out who comes off best. Small-scale differences aside, the candidate scores points by saying the things you want to hear, appearing to mean it, and manoeuvering better on the spot than others. For me, Ed Miliband did this the best, not necessarily because I feel his politics are closer to mine than that of any other candidate, nor because I desire for him to be the next leader of the Labour party, but because he spoke clearly and elegantly about important matters, rallied with passion about more than just things we might want to hear him say, and did this far better than any of his colleagues.

Why I’m backing Cruddas

I can foresee it now; the high profile of both Ed and David Miliband, and the circumstances under which their leadership battles are taking place (the shock that 2 brothers are fighting it out; surely we expect this of brothers) will mean that all eyes are on them.

Though I wasn’t there for Ed’s speech, I followed the #nextleft tweets and many leftist characters were repeating how he was uttering niceties, pleasing to fabian-types and progressives. And I can’t say that his leadership would be the worst thing that could happen, but this is precisely the problem, I don’t know Miliband as an ideas man, and whenever I’ve seen him speak he’s always seemed nervous and unbecoming, much like Gordon Brown was towards the end (the end of course being where nervousness and unbecomingness are kind of acceptable).

Ed Balls is by a long shot not a good idea, nobody likes him, and he has done very little to counter that. John McDonnell would be my second choice for leader, he has very real links with the unions, and could keep them onside and from jumping ship to splinter groups and other small parties intent on carving up the left vote. He is also a strong and passionate speaker and is unashamedly on the left wing, but for this reason he might be better suited to a job inside the opposition with a little more clout; for this reason I think he should back Cruddas, who currently leads him in the polls.

Jon Cruddas is a man who ought to take it easy on the academic stuff, indeed if he is to be a real leader contender he needs to keep (his erroneous) talk of the selfish gene back inside Compass HQ. Though this is not to suggest I dislike Cruddas as an ideas-centered person.

When others were waxing lyrical against him (Dave, Louise, Ten%, all of very sound mind, and who I admire and have complete respect for) I decided to stand by him. I read the Hardie lectures and there were many times when I winced with dispapproval, but other times when I could’ve swung from the ceiling; here is a serious labour politician who is talking sense about the type of ‘liberalisms’ that are bad for socialists.

Cruddas notes that:

It is wrong to think of socialism as a tradition that stands in opposition to liberalism … Yet we need to be very clear about which aspects of the liberal tradition Labour can usefully embrace as its own

There are a number of convergences between socialism and liberalism that Cruddas nods his hat to in his lectures at Compass, but today’s liberalisms are far removed from socialism, and these liberalisms even run through the veins of the labour party. Not simply the neo-liberalism of the Blair years, not even utilitarian liberalism which Cruddas also wags a finger at, but a kind of middle class nonchalant liberal attitude, summed up by the connotations of a bourgeoise left wing guardianista. A laissez-faire, suburban attitude towards society; a politically correct guilt-ridden frame of mind; rife with unthinking ideas on immigration; a thirst for silly hollow, non-committed campaigns; a justified anger at the British far right, matched with a relaxed attitude to the Middle Eastern far right, or a want to bend over backwards to blame their violence on the west.

It’ll be a hard task to rid the left of these things, but a good place to start is by holding socialism up to liberalism, Cruddas clearly has a thirst to do this, and that is why I’m supporting him for leader.

Will Gordon Brown ruin Labour forever?

The rebels failed to amount to anything at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting; the reshuffle has settled the shifts; Mandy is happy, the Miliband’s are happy; Polly Toynbee is furious; the James Purnell story on Guido Fawkes is probably bollocks; he probably helped keep Brown from drowning; Alan Johnson has not ruined his chances of being leader by looking like he wants it too much, and Brown lives to see another day.

So we rebels who hoped Compass would help direct Brown to the door have to ask ourselves the question; is the question of leadership change big enough to collapse the party (see David Aaronovitch’s intervention) or will the party suffer as a consequence of rebel silence?

In other words, should the rebels bite their lips to save the party, or will this complacency lead to defeat beyond repair.

Nick Cohen offered up some scary details at the weekend, and though rather exaggerated, do outline the very worst case scenrio for the Labour Party if the wrong decision is to be taken. He says;

“The banking crash led to recession, which led to a popular fury at the often minor, but still telling, corruptions of MPs who were fiddling expenses while the financial system boomed and bust. That anger has now concentrated on the shattered Brown administration, whose manifest failings could destroy Labour’s chances of winning another election – maybe forever, if the Liberal Democrats and Greens take over what remains of the centre-left.”

Roy Hattersley reminded us elsewhere that Labour should re-deliver its social democracy promises, just as Europe reminded us that the left’s chance to prosper (during an economic crisis) had failed.

But this is by far not a call for the left to give up, and I back Hattersley’s sentiment. The point remains; is Gordon Brown doing the right thing for the greater good by staying, if the worst that could happen come next election is that Labour slip into fourth place, behind the BNP, forever more?

The consequences of Brown staying on are far greater than an election defeat in 2010, and so the question is on: will the (definitely disavowed gesture of) silence by the rebels be a gesture that returns to haunt them in the future?

Best case scenario; that red light go green on the road to Socialism

Remaining consistent with calls for reform, such as Ed Miliband’s concern that Parliament “looks to many people like a 19th-century institution“, Jack Straw has set the ball rolling for a cross-party talk on constitutional reform, one in which David Cameron has been kind enough to agree to, setting his views on reform in today’s Guardian.

Those reforms, in brief (thanks to an article posted on Liberal Conspiracy) are;

• Limit the power of the prime minister by giving serious consideration to introducing fixed-term parliaments, ending the right of Downing Street to control the timing of general elections.

• End the “pliant” role of parliament by giving MPs free votes during the consideration of bills at committee stage. MPs would also be handed the crucial power of deciding the timetable of bills.

• Boost the power of backbench MPs – and limit the powers of the executive – by allowing MPs to choose the chairs and members of Commons select committees.

• Open up the legislative process to outsiders by sending out text alerts on the progress of parliamentary bills and by posting proceedings on YouTube.

• Curb the power of the executive by limiting the use of the royal prerogative which allows the prime minister, in the name of the monarch, to make major decisions. Gordon Brown is making sweeping changes in this area in the constitutional renewal bill, but Cameron says he would go further.

• Publish the expenses claims of all public servants earning more than £150,000.

• Strengthen local government by giving councils the power of “competence”. This would allow councils to reverse Whitehall decisions to close popular services, such as a local post office or a railway station, by giving them the power to raise money to keep them open.

The LC article goes on to comment on how Cameron continues his party’s opposition to proportional representation. This sets a precedent for Alan Johnson to push for a referendum on electoral reform and his support of Alternative Vote Plus.

Certainly proportionality, representation and equality are issues that could well return voters back to the Labour Party, and away from the fringe parties – whose presence is only, as this European election will prove, to provide a protest.

Roy Hattersley has been speaking today at Hay Festival about;

“There are many other basic ideas that socialists have to apply, with some care, to the modern world – among them the relationship between freedom and equality and the extension of genuine democracy.

Support for those principles is stronger than support for the Labour party itself. Far more people support socialist objectives than vote Labour. Many Liberals want a sustained assault on inequality. So do many Greens. Thousands of voters who feel no allegiance to any political party, and are antagonised by the unavoidable expediencies that accompany party politics, support all or part of the egalitarian agenda. The best, and perhaps only, way to secure a sustained period of progressive government is to mobilise all those forces in a radical alliance.”

And how true this is.

More influence in reform by Alan Johnson could at least margin the view by voters that Labour care little about the reform agenda, at best it could ask some serious questions again about the responsibility Labour has to return to socialism. For socialism is not simply a political referent, but a committed agenda for representation, and its high time questions like these are asked.

Moreover, it is hardly surprising that David Cameron, amid talks on radical reform, is not shifting on the question of electoral equality.