The Conservative party’s ‘big society’ rhetoric has failed, and failed spectacularly. David Cameron admitted as much in his speech to the Tory conference when he said he had “spent three years trying to explain the big society”. Trying and failing.
This failure has handed the Labour party an opportunity to show how we will build stronger communities, through a comprehensive approach to reforming public services.
The choice at the next election should be clear, a choice between, on the one hand, Labour’s plan to reform public services so that these services build stronger communities and, on the other hand, the Tories unconvincing big society rhetoric.
‘Unconvincing’ is the most important word to describe the ‘big society’. It’s not just that most people do not understand what the big society is, which they don’t. It’s not just that people feel that the big society is a cover for rushed cuts to public services, which they do. It’s that most people are unconvinced that the policies which are meant to create a ‘big society’ will do the job. A recent YouGov poll found that 73 per cent of the public, and a majority of Tories, said they do not think that the government’s big society policies will work.
While the public are not convinced by the Tories’ big society rhetoric, many people still long for a greater sense of community spirit. People want politicians to lay out a plan for how they will create stronger communities, in which people trust each other more, look out for each other more and feel a greater sense of belonging. People want their politicians to do this, and the Tories have failed. This failure has provided the Labour party with the perfect opportunity to lay out a contrasting approach to building stronger communities.
Labour’s approach should revolve around reforming public services, such as schools and the police. Ed Balls has already announced that a Labour government would have a root and branch budget review to examine every penny of public spending. This review should be combined with a similarly thoroughgoing reform of public services, to ensure that these services are doing everything possible to build stronger communities.
This means reforming public services so that they are better at listening, better at supporting the people who use them to create their own support systems and better at building a sense of pride in our neighbourhoods. As Jon Wilson said in Letting Go, his pamphlet for the Fabian’s, we need “public institutions which are better at cultivating relationships”.
The contrast with the Tories ‘big society’ is clear. The Tories see the state as the main barrier to community spirit, so their approach to building stronger communities is based on attacking public services. Labour understands that the state can and should be part of building stronger communities, so our approach means reforming public services.
This is as true in times of tight public sector budgets as it ever has been. That is why a plan for reforming public services must fit with a plan to review every penny of public spending. Public services should be reformed to ensure that they build stronger communities with the resources at their disposal and resources should be allocated partly on the basis of which services are best at building stronger communities.
The big society did not fail to convince people because the public have no appetite for politicians who talk about community life. Quite the opposite. The public remain broadly supportive of the idea of building stronger, more empowered, communities. They just are not convinced by the Tories’ policies which seem to involve little more than attacks on public services and eccentric policies such as inviting parents to set up their own schools or publishing detailed lists of every item purchased by local authorities.
Labour’s best approach to fighting the next general election is to show that we, unlike the Tories, have a clear and comprehensive plan for how we will reform public services so that these services will, within tight budgets, build stronger communities.
Ed Miliband has already started to lay the groundwork for this approach through the theme of ‘one nation’ Labour. The Labour party now needs to be explicit in contrasting the idea of one nation Labour with the Tory’s failed big society rhetoric.