Tories should revive the Big Society (but not tell anyone)

Published by The i paper (1st October, 2018)

As the Tories gather for their annual conference, they are in dismal shape – angry, divided and struggling to deliver Brexit. An unloved Prime Minister is held hostage by upper-crust careerists who view her with contempt. Fanatics have destroyed their reputation for pragmatism and ripped apart their bonds with business. The crippled leadership and constant feuding make election talk of stability seem like a cruel prank. They are despised by younger generations, loathed in London and their membership is only slightly larger than the invisible Liberal Democrats.

This is far from the ideal backdrop, although Theresa May’s faked fury over her Salzburg rejection means that she should survive her Birmingham jaunt. She will outline – hopefully without the set falling apart – her blurred vision for Brexit in a venue part-funded by Brussels. Her audience will be filled with people who arrived on a rail line upgraded with the aid of a hefty European Union grant. And the city itself – once such a municipal innovator – has taken significant sums from the same source to renovate its splendid town hall, rectify planning mistakes and assist people into jobs.

Such ironies are swept aside amid the clashes over Brexit, despite a new study showing that the public finances have already shrunk by £26bn a year. The Prime Minister offers the desperate concept of a Festival of Brexit Britain, hastily dreamed up for Sunday headlines. Her arch-enemy Boris Johnson also unveiled his big idea: a bridge between Scotland and Ireland, despite his shameful inability to answer the border question. He has previously suggested a bridge across the Channel and blown £46m on another that was never built in London. Such pitiful proposals scream to voters that these people have run out of steam.

The Tories must give daily thanks that their rivals are led by the useless Jeremy Corbyn, who lags behind in polls as the stench of anti-Semitism clings to his cabal. This is a stunning feat, given Labour’s own feuding and failure to focus on anything apart from the Brexit farce. Yet the Conservatives cannot afford complacency. A torrent of ideas bubbles beneath Labour, as seen in Liverpool last week, and even its most dire headline policies, such as reheated nationalisation, appeal to voters fed up with austerity and infuriated by political failure.

This needs combating with smarter policies than rejuvenated Thatcherism, which will not win over people upset by tax-dodging multinationals, obscene corporate pay and creaking public services. Yet the core problem is one of values, not policies. The Tories are on wrong side of the generational divide and deterring voters under 50, as seen at the last election. Brexit reinforces their standing alongside people fearful of modernity, dismayed by globalisation and dismissive of diversity – a shrinking slice of the electorate. So the Centre for Policy Studies is right to argue about the importance of housing for younger voters – but wrong to think that this is enough to win back support for a party that betrayed their generations.

Who knows if both main parties can survive their current traumas as Brexit exposes internal divisions with stark clarity? Whatever the final outcome – which still could be anything from crashing out devoid of a deal through to remaining after a second referendum – the disturbing display of deceit, tribalism and petty power plays only further erodes the reputation of Westminster. And this comes after a referendum that was a rejection of governing failures. So here is a radical idea: how about reviving the Big Society to empower people frustrated by political stasis?

No one in their right mind would actually mention the Big Society, of course, unless wanting mockery. But politicians need to build real bridges with voters to restore trust. Smarter Labour figures, including shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and some civic leaders, are pushing new models of decentralisation and shared ownership beneath Corbyn’s clunky statism. We see strong mayors in cities such as Birmingham and Manchester. And there is innovation from police chiefs backed by elected commissioners in places such as Durham.

Much of this might have fallen under the Big Society before it became ensnared by spending cuts. Instead, we saw an aspiration to assist individuals and communities wrecked by crass implementation of austerity, as ministers overloaded fiscal pain on local authorities to protect themselves. A noble, disruptive strategy was backed by paper-thin policies – then dissolved as vital services from addiction treatment units through to libraries were slashed. Bold talk of building a stronger society ended up sounding like a bad-taste gag.

Yet the concept was based on optimistic faith in citizens in a time of rapid change and rampant technological advance. And our need to discuss social repair, stronger communities and better public services has only strengthened, especially in this current toxic political atmosphere. Fringe events at the Labour conference showed some on the left can see the need to push down power and rebuild politics from the ground. Their vision, if not their tactics, is shared by many on the right – but are the Tories too busy bickering over Brexit to focus on the real issues at stake?

Brexiteers talk of taking back control from Brussels. Yet their success was built on deception, demonstrated by a shocking failure to articulate their plans, which only extends the distrust with elites that lay behind their win. Now the sordid politics on display across the spectrum can only corrode trust further, especially in struggling communities, and it is hard not to see this worsening, whatever the final outcome. This mess highlights the desperate need to strip power from Westminster, speed up decentralisation and hand real control to local communities. The Big Society was a disastrous failure. But that does not mean it was wrong.

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