The Lib Dems’ Big Society big opportunity


The Lib Dems appear largely to be ignoring the Big Society. But it could be an opportunity to define themselves more clearly and create a wedge between progressive and traditional Tories.

Richard Reeves (my former opposite number at Demos and now political strategist to Nick Clegg) will have mixed feelings this morning. The DPM’s speech succeeded in getting across its core messages, but as a piece of rhetoric it was generally found wanting. It’s the message that matters, but any speech-writer hopes that their work will be appreciated as a political art form. Having said which, Clegg’s pre-conference speech calling for a 'horizon shift' in politics and policy making bore the Reeves imprint more clearly and was also much more intellectually nourishing than yesterday’s effort.

Not that I have much experience to go on. I was always singularly unsuccessful at getting more than the occasional one-liner into Tony Blair’s speeches. The only exception was in 2003 when he used three full paragraphs of mine to announce what came to be called the ‘Big Conversation’. The next day it was precisely these paragraphs which a number of commentators - I remember Jonathan Freedland in particular – described as being the low point of the speech.

My problem was usually over-intellectualising. While I always wanted to qualify or justify a claim or promise, the more effective speech writers knew it was enough simply to assert it. Indeed the habit of short verb-less assertions is one Clegg seems to have adopted from Blair. So, when today in Liverpool, at the first of this year’s RSA fringe meetings, I criticise the Lib Dems for a lack of intellectual rigour it might reasonably be viewed as simply more evidence of my political naivety.

I will argue that the conference seems – perhaps inevitably - dominated by the question of the relationship between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. This suggests that Clegg’s political options all lie on a linear continuum between political submissiveness and internal opposition. This is not good positioning. As the Government becomes more unpopular and the Party more restive, it could easily become a trap; staying in the same place being merely the least worst option to moving in either dangerous direction.

Instead, had I been a Lib Dem strategist, I would have tried to use the conference not just to pledge that certain of the Party’s policies aspirations would be delivered, but to underline the distinct intellectual and political contribution the Lib Dems make to the Coalition.

One example of this missed opportunity lies in the predictable, but not necessarily wise, blanket condemnation of Labour’s record. This is fine - and probably justified when it comes to civil liberties – but perhaps not so clever when Nick Clegg and his colleagues attack Labour’s failure on inequality, asserting that the gap between rich and poor grew between 1997 and 2010. Not only is this untrue (unless you are very selective with statistics) but, more importantly, it ignores the fact that the effect of Labour tax and spend policies were substantially redistributive. The conundrum is that despite a redistributive Government spending a higher proportion of national income on public services, inequality levels remained stubbornly high. If the Lib Dems are to have any chance of making an impact on inequality in the face of austerity, the natural tendency for cuts to impact hardest on the poorest, and the limited (at best) enthusiasm of most Conservatives for redistribution, they will to spend less time attacking Labour’s record and more time trying to understand why it made as little progress as it did.

A second example concerns the Big Society. The polling IPSOS/MORI’s Ben Page will present today shows three main findings. The first is that people broadly accept the idea we need to give back more to our local community. The second is a gap between, on the one hand, people’s support of the idea and their willingness to step forward themselves and, on the other, between their support for devolving power and their intolerance of ‘postcode lotteries’. The third finding is that unless politicians are talking about the Big Society constantly it soon slips from public imagination. Recognition of the idea seems to have fallen in the last few months.

Rather than ignoring it (which seems to be the present strategy), the Lib Dems need their own their own take on the Big Society. With the Party’s long standing commitment to localism and its powerful brand of pavement politics the Coalition’s junior partner has more credibility and expertise in this area than the Conservatives. The Lib Dems should be ‘Big Society supporters who mean it’. They should argue that a Big Society approach needs to be at the heart of all public service strategies (it is currently absent from health and welfare to work policy and only at the margins in relation to schools) and that the Big Society is not credible unless it involves investing substantially in capacity building in poorer communities. Given that David Cameron’s sincere enthusiasm for the idea is not as deeply held by other senor Conservatives, the Big Society also offers the Lib Dems a way of creating a useful wedge between progressive and more traditional Conservatives.

Anyway, this is what I intend to say at lunchtime. I’ll tell you tomorrow how it goes down.

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