The credibility gap
Adam Schoenborn on the shifting centre of British politics
Over at the RSA blog, Matthew Taylor has been asking whether the Big Society is facing a hostile takeover by the Left.
There is plenty of reason for the question, as the last two weeks alone have seen the Labour-led Lambeth Council kick off it’s potentially transformative Co-operative Council initiative, the Blue Labourite Maurice Glasman admit that New Labour was ‘too statist’ and Ed Miliband himself tell the Fabians that:
The bureaucratic state and the overbearing market will never meet our real ambition as a party … we need to draw on that other tradition based on mutualism, localism and the common bonds of solidarity.
This is a brave and fundamental shift across the political machinery of the Left – from the very top to the very local. Where the easy route would be to focus on negative campaigning against the deeply unpopular Coalition cuts, instead Labour has boldly embraced the idea of a new civic settlement propagated by their political opponents. And for those who want immediate action to back Big Society rhetoric, or argue it is implausible in areas of urban deprivation, look no further than Lambeth.
Beyond noting this shift, Matthew Taylor also summarises the massive problem facing the original proponents of the Big Society,
Coalition supporters who are also advocates of Big Society thinking face a massive – and probably unbridgeable – credibility gap. For the next two years many of those things they say they most value will be undermined by the Government which they support. They can, of course, argue that the Big Society offers the best way of respond to the cuts in publicly funded social infrastructure, but for the charities and their clients this is a bit like a small member of a gang offering you some ointment after a big member of the gang has just kicked you.
For a great many on the Thatcherite side of the Conservatives, an unbridgeable gap in Big Society credibility is for the better. Former Chancellor Nigel Lawson reiterated this position in an interview this weekend, when he argued that the Tories’ election strategy:
… should have made a greater thing out of the economy being a mess. Though they started the election doing that, the immediate results in the opinion polls were unfavourable, and so they stopped talking about the economy and talked instead about the Big Society, which nobody understood anyway.
These two sentences sum up the fundamental divide in conservatism under David Cameron – between those who, like Lawson and the now departed Coulson, thought elections could and should be won by a tough stance on the economy, immigration and benefits cheats; and those who, like Lord Ashcroft, believed that a turn to insensitive budget-slashing would undermine Conservative credibility amongst mainstream voters.
It will be a triple shame if the Lawson view prevails, as it will undermine the revival of traditional community-focused conservatism; disrupt an obvious and crucial cross-party consensus around the Big Society; and sanction the continued withdrawal of economic support to the charities and voluntary association at the heart of these philosophies.
This is a debate over where the centre ground of British politics can be won. The Conservatives, who are particularly handicapped by a First Past the Post system which punishes their geographically concentrated base, cannot afford to get this question wrong – especially as Labour are regrouping and coalescing on the territory where the Tories fought the last election.