Big Society v. Good Society: Jon Cruddas MP comes to Leeds
On June 21st, the University’s Social Sciences Institute hosted a round table discussion in order to question the extent to which ‘Big Society’ might be synonymous with ‘good society’. Chris Dietz gives his take on the event.
What differentiates the Big Society from other conceptions of ‘good’ societies? Is David Cameron onto something? Or does this apparently nostalgic euphemism simply provide a smokescreen for a systematic attack on the welfare state? From fervent socialists to those of a more conservative persuasion (most recently including Rowan Williams the archbishop of Canterbury) the idea has been widely met with ridicule and scorn.
As such, I suspect few arrived at the Great Hall for the Leeds Social Sciences Institute’s ‘Big Society/Good Society’ round table discussion with a particularly open mind. Chaired by Guardian journalist Zoe Williams, the panel of speakers included: Bruce Davis, a visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds Bauman Institute; Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, a pressure group offering ‘direction for the democratic left’; and Professor Rebecca Tunstall, expert in housing studies from the University of York. But in light of recent events, the name that arguably stood out was that of Dr Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham & Rainham and newly-appointed head of Labour’s policy review.
Cruddas’s stock has risen recently amongst those concerned with modern politics and its shortcomings. Wary of under-analysing the rise and fall of New Labour, Cruddas has criticised the party’s adoption of free-market neoliberlism in place of its formerly ethical roots. The left-wing press have described him as a ‘philosopher’, even a ‘maverick’. He himself suggests that Labour must offer “bold, radical solutions”.
Popular with his constituents, Cruddas also teaches at Oxford University. His presentation as a political thinker-doer inevitably titillates optimistic Guardianistas. But I wondered how this would come across in a more critical academic setting. Given Middle England’s contentment with the politics of austerity, I doubted this Leeds audience would obligingly accept that radical social theory may soon be put into practice in the halls of Westminster.
While Cruddas managed his customary nods to the likes of Václav Havel, Dylan Thomas and (of course) Michel Foucault, I saw a side to the speaker that had not come across previously. Describing a recent community-building meeting just outside his constituency in Barking, he came across as grounded as well as engaging. In light of the threats posed to him on a local level by the British National Party, I got the impression that any plans to construct an ivory tower may have been denied planning permission.
But neither was he preoccupied by realpolitik. Asked about the consequences of the well-documented victory for George Galloway’s Respect Party in the recent Bradford West by-election, Cruddas explained that Labour’s architecture for voter-management had been completely eradicated. This, he welcomed with a clear “Good”.
“You don’t find many politicians talking about the Big Society at the moment,” he joked, “certainly not David Cameron”. But now that the ideology has been analysed, he suggested the idea could be reclaimed.
The UK’s ‘problem areas’, attacked by their own residents less than twelve months ago in the London riots, evidence serious levels of political disenfranchisement. How will this lack of social engagement be resolved? I doubt by homemade cider and apple crumble.
The subsequent speakers put some meat on these bones. Bruce Davis discussed how his ‘social lending’ company zopa.com is informed by sociological theory. The site encourages communities not to hoard capital but invest their earnings in social enterprise. The aim is to create ‘democratic finance’. Rebecca Tunstall advised that lessons could be learned from the tenant housing cooperatives. Their successes and failures offer guidance to those embarking upon similar programmes. Neal Lawson meanwhile advocated a positive mindset for public policy – to “just try things out” and learn from our mistakes as free-market policy makers have done for the last forty years.
The thread that ran through the whole discussion and touched on a familiar problem – the paradox of equality and localism. For Lawson the solution was to “accept and embrace”. To me this sounded simplistic. Tunstall’s lament about setting the alarm for a shift tending the community orchard of a Sunday morning for me spoke volumes. The issue of fairness may be resolved at a local level – but how can equality be furthered when to many the very idea of a community orchard is laughable? The UK’s ‘problem areas’, attacked by their own residents less than twelve months ago in the London riots, evidence serious levels of political disenfranchisement. How will this lack of social engagement be resolved? I doubt by homemade cider and apple crumble. In most analyses, there is some role for the state. This is true whether or not the Big Society is an idea that endures.
Author: Chris Dietz
Image: Prospect Magazine