TAKING BACK THE BIG SOCIETY
I was going to speak about the specifics of the ‘Big Society’ debate, about its different forms across Whitehall, its tensions and contradictions, and about Labour’s own record and how we should respond.
I now think, however, that in order to do such work we have to firstly consider some more fundamental first principles.
Because this debate is really about Labour; about what it has become and what it has been in the past and about what it has lost.
And how – through the lives of historic labour figures like Bevan – we can rediscover our own identity through the rediscovery of a sentiment around Labour.
Why? Well, put simply, we are in crisis.
Arguably we are experiencing the third great crisis of Labour, following those of 1931 and 1981, each driven by patterns of economic rupture.
How will we get out of this? And where do we start?
I believe we will find the answers to these questions here in England.
I admit this is a strange observation when discussing a towering Welsh Labour figure; but bear with me.
England is where the fight for Labour’s future will be fiercest; where the crisis is most acute.
I have to make an initial admission.
I did not grow up in a family schooled in the great Labour contributions of Hardie, Lansbury or Bevan.
I had never heard of them till I went to university.
Our heroes were the Kennedys, born not of party but of diaspora, and Oscar Romero, born of creed not of political science.
We lost the brothers over forty years ago. And it is thirty years ago last March since Romero was assassinated by San Salvador death squads.
Whilst I personally was very much attracted to Romero’s mixture of Catholic social teaching and Marxism- to give a ‘voice to the voiceless’ – in fact at home we owed everything to Labour.
Aneurin Bevan told Jennie Lee: ‘It is the Labour Party or nothing’.
He was speaking for the working class but he was also speaking about himself.
And for me too – and many, many millions of us.
I still see it the same way, almost as a life sentence.
A fundamental part of my and our identity.
But what is the identity of Labour now?
The threat facing Labour is bigger than the Coalition.
It’s bigger than the millions lost to us at the last election.
Or the tens of thousands of members lost.
We have lost the respect of many who put their trust in us.
Now I am not here to bury Labour; but there is a pervasive sense of loss around our party.
It is a loss of identity.
We do not possess some kind of historical right to exist.
Across Europe social democracy has been reduced to parties of the public sector and the liberal middle class: 30% in Sweden; 23% in Germany; 29% here in the UK.
Capitalism has been through a revolution and the old working class has lost its economic function.
Its culture is dying; its patterns of family and kinship are under siege.
Its political parties are fading.
Many are turning to the far right cultural movements that are sweeping across Europe.
And this is the coming front line.
The new battleground is one of identity, race and religion, of class and culture.
Labour has to be in this swim; to ensure that right wing populists are not the only ones navigating this terrain.
Bevan understood Labour’s faults and dangers.
He said, ‘We can’t undo what we have done. And I am by no means convinced that something cannot yet be made of it.’
It is true, there is hope for Labour precisely because we have a powerful tradition; a collective memory built in previous periods of dispossession.
But Bevan also gave a warning.
To retreat into purity will bring impotence.
Success will require boldness in word and deed.
The task at hand is for Labour to rebuild its identity grounded in ordinary, everyday working class culture.
If we don’t change, the mood will turn to weariness and despair; possibly captured by right wing populism.
The people will continue to desert us.
There will be dark times.
It is therefore an obligation to rebuild.
For that we need audacity.
Think of England today
My dominant image of politics in 2010 is not the election, Gordon Brown and Mrs Duffy; nor of Cameron and Clegg in the Downing Street garden; nor of Ed and David Miliband.
It was in London, just recently.
I was walking behind a big African guy coming home from church with his toddler.
The little boy was wearing a tee-shirt with two simple words on the back. In very big bold type.
‘Pastor Jones’ was all it said; all it needed to say.
It was the height of the Mosque in Manhattan controversy and Pastor Jones in Florida was ready to burn the Qur’an. International Burn a Qur’an Day.
In real time his message had reached the centre of cosmopolitan London. Where people felt moved to dress their kids in solidarity with this cultural and religious fight in North America. And go to church so dressed.
The man and his child belonged to a London church; on inspection we find links between this church and the English Defence League.
Indeed we find links between the EDL and organisers of the New York protests.
Moreover, these shadowy figures are also in touch with key Tea Party people in America, inviting them over and building links across Europe.
On 30 October they will be in Amsterdam supporting Geert Wilders.
What is this about?
Sure the BNP has been crushed by electoral defeat.
The EDL is a new kind of threat – a cultural movement; unpredictable and violent; a new politics of ‘flash demos’ and open wildcat networks.
It copies the old Anti Nazi League slogan: ‘Black and white to unite.’
It demands democracy, not racial purity: ‘While our troops fight for democracy overseas we’re losing it here,’ they shout.
Its leaders welcome all races to join in defending England’s ‘Christian culture’.
It is patriotic, it loves the military.
The EDL is a small, violent street militia but it speaks the language of a much larger, disenfranchised class.
A politics born out of dispossession but anchored in English male working class culture; of dress and sport.
Camped outside the political centre ground, a large swathe of the electorate.
The making of an English Tea Party.
A people who believe they have been robbed of their birthright
They want community and belonging.
I would argue that in the last three decades England has suffered a social calamity.
Thirteen years of Labour governments had only begun the repair.
The malign elements of globalisation ripping through communities.
For many, ways of life ruined.
Civic decency and families compromised by crime and drugs.
Scores of thousands suffering chronic illness and premature death.
The institutions that supported the Labour movement a shadow of their former selves.
In his essay ‘Culture is Ordinary’, Raymond Williams described the working class culture he grew up in: eighbourhood and security, mutual obligation and common betterment.
Precisely those things often now felt to be under threat.
People make a culture to make identity and their home in the world.
A Labour working class culture grounded in the ordinary.
And another great Welshman Dylan Thomas described this culture of the Labour movement as ‘parochial’ and yet ‘magical’.
But what happens when that is lost?
When the things that give you and your family meaning are rendered obsolete?
When you are dispossessed of that culture you lose a sense of who you are.
It can be to suffer humiliation.
It can become harder to find and keep a sense of honour and dignity.
It can create the anger of the defeated.
It can destroy family and community. And culture.
The old industrial order with its male breadwinner and head of household has gone.
Men have lost traditions of skilled work that were a source of pride.
What now do fathers pass down to their sons?
Many young men have lost the traditional rites of passage into adulthood: getting a decent job, establishing a family, making a home.
And there can be the shame of those who are unable to defend themselves.
There are the beaten and defeated, the ‘feckless’ poor and the so-called benefit scroungers, those who suffer chronic illness, depression, alcoholism, addicts, who have not worked for years, who are living reminders of what happens to those who can’t cope, and who don’t succeed in this rat race.
This is the fate that our society deals out: not compassion but more often contempt.
At times people will use violence to avoid this shame.; respect garnered in different ways.
Here lies an angry politics of dispossession.
Is it to become crystallised – or framed – in Europe and North America in a new politics of patriotism, family and faith?
A ‘civilisational politics’ that stretches across the Atlantic.
A politics of loss.
Loss of a sense of identity and a way of life.
A loose coalition pulled together by what they are against: often this is Islam.
The enemy is not, to them, just Islam it is also the liberal middle class elite who reside over injustice and who have betrayed England and humiliated its people.
Labour must stop this refracting into an English populism; by building our own optimistic politics.
To return to Raymond Williams: he said ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.’
We have been here before.
In the 1960s, Enoch Powell built an English nationalism that drove a wedge between the liberal elite and the people.
Powell sought to make despair convincing.
He said, ‘There is a deep and dangerous gulf in the nation’.
The liberal intelligentsia is the ‘enemy within’, destroying the moral fabric of the English nation with its promotion of multiculturalism.
A permissive elite that renders the majority of English people passive and helpless, and abandons England to those who hate her.
Are we witnessing a new cultural struggle in civil society?
A growing gulf between the political classes and the people.
Could this develop into the real challenge of our time?
Played out in the context of massive public expenditure cuts.
It is incumbent on Labour once again to make hope possible.
There is much talk in Labour about our Southern Discomfort.
But the politics of dispossession point to something bigger: Labour’s English Discomfort.
Bevan said: Be bold.
He taught us how to begin the political struggle.
Ask the question: ‘Where does power lie in this particular state of Great Britain, and how can it be attained?’
So let’s return to some fundamentals in terms of England.
Because although these issues are contemporary, they are actually not new. They lie deep within Labour’s own culture through waves of dispossession.
Let’s briefly return to England’s past.
In the winter of 1799 Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother William settled in Dove Cottage in Grasmere.
The industrial revolution was in its most intense period.
A period of economic rupture.
She decided to keep a diary.
She writes about nature, their walks and the garden.
But there is more.
She describes her encounters with beggars: ‘a poor girl called to beg’, a ‘broken’ soldier, ‘a pretty little boy’ of seven – ‘When I asked him if he got enough to eat, he looked surprised, and said ‘Nay’ – an old sailor 57 years at sea.
She asks them about their lives.
Where have these sick, destitute and uprooted people come from?
Countless pamphlets of the time attempted an answer: wages were too high, wages were too low, paupers were feckless, they had bad diets, they had drug habits, they drank tea that impaired their health.
A strange contemporary feel to the debates if you read them now.
The national debate about the causes of pauperism literally led to the idea of society itself.
In turn the idea of society laid the foundations for socialism and social democracy.
We are having the same debate today.
Big Society, Good Society: we cannot talk about them without talking about class, power and dispossession.
Since Wordsworth the English working class was defined in three acts of dispossession.
First. The dispossession of the people from their land and livelihood and from a common way of life.
Gerard Winstanley summed up the history of enclosures in his Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England.
He told the landowners: ‘The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into creation by your ancestors by the sword.’
Enclosing was standardised in the General Enclosure Act of 1801.
The industrial revolution turned the common people into shiftless migrants.
Second. The dispossession of the labouring class from the political life of the country.
The enclosures dispossessed the people of their land.
The 1832 Parliamentary Reform Act excluded the landless from the franchise.
‘In England’, writes Karl Polanyi, ‘it became the unwritten law of the Constitution that the working class must be denied the vote.’
Third. The dispossession of the people from their own labour.
The 1834 Poor Law Reform Act established a competitive market in labour.
The poor were divided into helpless paupers who were confined to the workhouse, and a new category, the unemployed.
Free labourers must earn their living by working for a wage.
Unemployment meant the hated workhouse or death by starvation.
Labour was turned into a commodity and the capitalist system was born.
So began what Polanyi describes as the double movement of capitalism.
On the one hand, the market destroys old social networks and reduces all human relations to commercial ones.
On the other is the counter-tendency to defend human values; the search for community and security.
What is Labour in its deeper meaning?
What is then the Labour sentiment?
Historically it is the response of people to their dispossession.
It is a timeless fight against such dispossession.
It is the defence of their social life and relationships from commodification.
It is the politics of a common life, a common law and a common wealth.
It is being played out today.
Labour has been at the centre of the historical struggle for democracy.
Since Wordsworth; through successive waves of dispossession.
This is our tradition; to be reclaimed today.
Turn then to New Labour.
For the last three decades Polanyi’s double movement has been working in the favour of capital.
Trade unions decimated.
A massive transfer of wealth and political power to the rich.
Like our ancestors in the first decade of the nineteenth century, we are faced with profound questions about capitalism and dispossession.
About the role of the market and state and the relationship of the individual to society.
New Labour was at its best a contemporary, popular response to these questions.
Tony Blair set out his vision of New Labour in his 1994 inaugural conference speech:
‘This is my socialism … A nation for all the people, built by the people, where old divisions are cast out. A new spirit in the nation based on working together, unity, solidarity, partnership. That is the patriotism of the future. Where your child in distress is my child; your parent ill and in pain is my parent; your friend unemployed or homeless is my friend; your neighbour my neighbour. That is the true patriotism of a nation.’
But it did not survive.
By 2005 New Labour politics had become a desiccated materialism where people either sink or swim.
At the party conference Blair said: ‘There is no mystery about what works: an open, liberal economy, prepared constantly to change to remain competitive. The new world rewards those who are open to it.’
A dystopian world view.
Social solidarity is essential, but its purpose, he said, ‘is not to resist the force of globalisation but to prepare for it, and to garner its vast potential benefits.’
In that arc between 1994 and 2005 Labour lost its identity.
A communitarian politics built around the good society had been defeated by a utilitarian privileging of personal choice and liberal individualism.
A stripped-down notion of aspiration dominated.
Philip Gould said in his book Unfinished Revolution that his parents ‘wanted to do what was right, not what was aspirational.’
When asked what was Labour’s essential message, Alan Milburn said it was to help more people ‘earn and own.’
In contrast Romero, speaking for our Labour ancestors – and indeed speaking for a different Labour sentiment – said: ‘Aspire to be more, not to have more.
Now the consequence of this drift within Labour was of course the ‘Big Society’.
David Cameron seized the opportunity.
He reframed New Labour’s ethical socialism into his idea of ‘building a pro-social society’: ‘There is such a thing as society, but it’s just not the same thing as the state.’
Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice gave pro-social, anti-state politics a moral underpinning.
Cameron called Britain a ‘Broken Society’.
In 2008, he wrote: ‘ the aim of the Conservative Party is nothing short of building the good society.’
Notice the use of both the big and the good society – seen as inter-changeable.
By 2010 he was talking about ‘Our Big Society Agenda’:
‘It’s about the biggest and most dramatic redistribution of power from elites to the man and woman in the street. It’s about liberation.’
He is colonising a language around fraternity; duty; obligation and – yes – belonging.
It is a profoundly important challenge for Labour as our loss of language reinforces that loss of identity.
His party is unenthusiastic. Sure.
His right are disgusted. Sure.
The electorate and commentariat don’t get it.
Yet Cameron persists.
His 2010 Conference speech called for a ‘Big Society Spirit’: ‘It’s the spirit of activism, dynamism, people taking the initiative, working together to get things done.’
Labour has been slow to respond. We have said:
* the Big Society is just about dismantling the state;
* it’s vacuous and shallow;
* it’s Cameron’s mistaken obsession.
But Labour cannot afford complacency.
Labour built new schools and hospitals; a massive social investment.
An historic achievement.
No-one seems very grateful.
Labour in government pursued efficiency, ‘value for money’ and ‘customer satisfaction’, but it did not take care of the human relationships and trust that lie at the heart of public services.
It used the market and the state as heartless instruments of reform.
People felt excluded.
They did not feel an ownership of the new grand buildings.
With embarrassing speed the Conservatives detached Labour from its own achievements.
The market failure of the banks was turned into a crisis of public debt and blamed on Labour.
Cameron’s Big Society is a mix of social Tory activism and old-fashioned volunteering.
It speaks about mutualism but is stuck in market transactions.
It believes in fairness but won’t tackle the causes of unfairness.
It wants power to the people but opposes democratic reform.
It is Cameron’s version of what Stuart Hall once described as New Labour’s ‘double shuffle’: a sophisticated, warm political language that disguises what lies beneath its neo-liberal wiring.
Its warm and generous words obscure – quite functionally – a deeper fundamental assault on the state.
Cameron’s goal is to seize the centre ground and remake it around a centre-right politics.
He has seized Labour’s most precious asset: society and its relationships.
He has left Labour looking like a technocratic, micromanaging, ‘we know what’s best for you’ party.
The coalition with the Liberal Democrats has only increased the potency of this strategy.
Labour has been dangerously slow to respond.
Yet buried underneath the last few years there was other work in progress that was in direct contrast to the trajectory of much of this Labour thinking.
It urged us to challenge this dominant notion of materialism and acquisition.
It talked about fellowship and human relationships; it talked about dispossession and neighbourliness.
It talked about England: of Tawney and William Morris; of Orwell. It talks of virtue, love, collaboration and kindness.
The task was to build the ‘decent society’; grounded in the ordinary working class culture of the country.
I would urge people to read Hazel Blears’ 2004 pamphlet The Politics of Decency.
Second, I would urge people to re-read the Compass pamphlet The Good Society.
The parallels and the common ground – yet from different wings of the party – are crystal clear.
Hazel and Compass might appear strange bedfellows; but I believe Labour’s futue is to be built within these two texts.
And now things appear to be moving further.
For example, in July, David Miliband reacted.
He recognised that Labour lacked a creed, ‘a strong idea of a good society and a life fit for all human beings for all citizens.’
In turn, Ed Miliband has pushed it into the centre of Labour politics
In his inaugural leadership speech at the 2010 party conference, he called on Labour to ‘inspire people with our vision of the good society.’
Taking back the Big Society from the Conservatives means building Labour’s Good Society.
It is about rediscovering a sentiment around Labour.
Lets think about the notion Labour’s Good Society
Let’s return to New Labour: at the beginning it captured the popular mood.
It had a vision of the Good Society.
The pluralism, the ethical socialism, the stakeholding economy, the idea of a covenant of trust and reciprocity with the people, the powerful emotional language that ignited popular hope.
It made a powerful, vote-winning story.
I believed in this politics, I still do.
But it is no longer enough.
Arguably, with the move away from stakeholding, it tended to see globalisation as essentially benign and understate at best the destructive forces of capitalism; its double movement as described by Polanyi.
It developed a naive faith in markets and a fatal deference toward the City of London.
We now have to go on a return journey to rediscover our language and identity.
So let’s start with a number of central propositions that lie deep within our own history – captured in the life of Aneurin Bevan himself.
First, that Labour is a moral force.
It emerged out of the harsh puritanism of non-conformist culture.
But it broke the status quo and it began to transform the culture that had given it life.
It grew out of the Mutual Improvement Societies dedicated to literature, a love of learning and the liberating power of culture.
It grew out of a vast popular movement of voluntary collectivism.
Bevan’s politics were formed in the Tredegar Query Club, the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, the Miners’ Institute, the Miners’ Welfare Committee.
It was a movement of civility, liberty and self-education.
It was dedicated to social justice, intellectual freedom and the desire for self-realisation.
Not the brittle aspiration that became New Labour’s signature tune, but a deeper human desire to live a good life.
Second, Labour is for the common good.
Its ethical intention is aimed at the good life with and for others and the creation of just institutions.
Its politics of virtue is rooted in Aristotle and grows out of the shared life of friendship.
The common good provides the general conditions through which each has access to their own fulfilment.
Third, Labour is for reciprocity.
There is a story quoted by Karen Armstrong in her studies of comparative religions. She refers to the way Hyam Maccoby quotes the Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule.
Some pagans came to Hillel and said that they would convert if he were able to stand on one leg and recite the whole of the Jewish scriptures in full whilst keeping his balance.
A pretty tough ask …
Well, Hillel stood on one leg and simply said the following: ‘Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary.’
The rest is commentary. Stripped bare, this is the core of all religions, and none, as it also lies as the core of much humanism found around Labour; a sense of reciprocity and obligation to others.
Reciprocity is the ethical core of Labour.
Reciprocity is the give and take that creates the social bonds that hold people together in a common life.
And it is not exclusively religious.
Consider this, written about Bevan by Jennie Lee in a letter to Michael Foot, the day after Bevan died on 6 July 1960.
She writes thus:
‘Nye was never a hypocrite. No falsity must touch him once he is no longer able to defend his views. He was not a cold-blooded rationalist. He was no calculating machine. He was a great humanist whose religion lay in loving his fellow men and trying to serve them.’
The Golden Rule, ‘Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you,’ reappears.
Further on Jennie writes:
‘He could kneel reverently in chapel, synagogue, Eastern mosque, Catholic cathedral on occasions when friends called him there for marriage or dedication or burial service. He knelt reverently in respect of a friend or a friend’s faith, but never pretended to be other than he was, a humanist. Often in the last few years he talked of “the mystery that lies at the heart of things,” nothing more definite than that.’
This is vital as we seek to rebuild Labour.
In contrast to much secular European social democracy, Labour succeeded in the UK in building a workers’ movement – around a common humanity, beyond money or power alone – that was not divided between Catholic and Protestant, or between secularists and believers, but the movement itself provided the common life which reconciled these different elements.
It was genuinely plural, respectful of difference; fraternal; courteous.
This open pluralist sentiment has to be rediscovered again in order to make Labour a vibrant contemporary force.
Not a haven for a shrill, closed and exclusive, middle-class secular metropolitan liberalism.
Fourth, Labour is for liberty and joy.
The ethic of reciprocity is the basis of human freedom.
We are interdependent and liberty is mutual; the freedom of one requires the freedom of all.
There is no liberty for all without solidarity and democracy.
There is only one force capable of countering the profit-seeking of capitalism and the social damage and insecurities it causes, and that is democracy.
Political democracy alone is not sufficient; it has to extend into the economic sphere.
Bevan, as we all know, used the term serenity; it is an elusive term, but is a sense of contentment.
It is a notion of self realisation again traced back to Aristotle: the Polis – the City State politics – is about establishing institutions that allow us to live a virtuous life, the search for wisdom, compassion, the cardinal virtues.
Bevan was not a religious man – although close to death he did, as we have seen, ponder the “mystery that lies at the heart of things.”
He found this self-realisation in walking, in learning and culture, in the pleasures of life.
Where there is joy there is a life lived well
Fifth, Labour is for a common wealth.
Labour’s political economy was born out of the experience of dispossession. It seeks:
* to ensure the worker receives a fair reward for their labour;
* to build up democracy in order to regulate markets, and use capital for the common good;
* a productive, wealth-creating, wealth-spreading economy for a common prosperity and not for the enrichment of the few;
* a system of welfare for all funded by all according to their means, that preserves the dignity of the people and that protects them against the inequities of capital and the misfortunes of life;
* a just distribution of assets such that all can live independently according to their want.
I will conclude with a couple of points.
Tonight I anticipated simply talking about ‘taking back the Big Society debate’ by offering a critique of the Tory agenda.
But the more I kicked it around, the more it becomes a case of firstly rehabilitating a sentiment around Labour as part of rebuilding a party and movement.
In our history Labour has always responded to dispossession; to economic and social loss.
It must do so again by rediscovering a warmth and generosity; especially in England by learning from our previous generations who have all dealt with the same patterns of loss.
As such, Labour’s Good Society lies deep in the English struggle for popular democracy.
As well as a struggle forged in Celtic Labour traditions and culture through such heroes as Hardie and Bevan.
Yet it is a distinctly English crisis that Labour must now respond to, by learning from our own comparative history.
Literally a journey of self discovery; of rediscovering a virtue politics of compassion, fraternity, duty and obligation.
The next few years will be difficult.
We are obliged to re-anchor Labour in ordinary, mainstream culture of the country. As we have done before.
Not least to counter those sinister forces who seek a politics of division: ‘To make hope possible rather than despair convincing.’
The Conservatives’ Big Society is founded in its history as the defender of the status quo and the property rights of the rich.
They profited from the Satanic Mills.
By reclaiming the Good Society, we can again seek to build that Jerusalem.