In 2007, just before Gordon Brown took charge of the New Labour project, Eric Shaw asked whether Labour had lost its soul (Shaw, 2007). His answer was a qualified 'yes'. Although New Labour had made substantial progress when it came to the redistribution of wealth and equality of opportunity, it had gradually detached itself from the ethos of fellowship and co-operation that thinkers associated with the party in the early twentieth century considered central to the Labour project. Tony Blair may have talked the language of 'community' and 'solidarity', but New Labour policies steadily corroded co-operative life as they extended the acid individualism of Tawney's 'acquisitive society'.
So far Labour has struggled to articulate an alternative to David Cameron's plans for a 'Big Society'. In principle it seems right that the state should hand more power over to the people. How can you argue with deeper democracy? But something feels wrong. Is civil society up to the job of stepping into the breach where the state steps out? Can we really rely on markets that are only just beginning to recover from their dramatic collapse to fill the hole left by the public sector? Since the state is guarantor of a decent life for the least advantaged, this is a high-risk strategy that could have traumatic unintended consequences.
But defending the state without recognising the need for alternative long-term solutions to the provision of social goods seems short-sighted. Inefficiency, unaffordability and inertia have begun to characterise public services. Increasingly, bureaucracy is stifling small businesses and alienating individuals from their government. In the public mind, Labour is fundamentally associated with the state. But the state has become part of the problem.
Ed Miliband's 'new generation' recognises that Labour needs to rediscover its soul, but there is a lack of clarity about how both state and market can be transformed and how this will present an alternative to the Big Society. Labour can certainly learn from the political success of grassroots organisations such as London Citizens, drawing on the party's long tradition of emphasis on 'the essential role of organisation' as well as 'on relationship, on place and the everyday' (Baskerville and Stears, 2010, 69). But there are other traditions on the left that emerge from a considered critique of the Coalition's Big Idea - traditions that, once recovered, could help return Miliband's party to the core of the Labour movement.
The critique of the Big Society: a summary
The critique of the Big Society begins by observing that handing responsibility over to communities in their existing form would be an undemocratic form of empowerment - and less effective for it. Inequalities systematically produced and reinforced by the market will prevent many from participating in the Big Society, resulting in collaborations that - although based on goodwill - are both deeply unrepresentative of the people they are supposed to benefit and leave a large pool of resources untapped. As Ed Turner recently pointed out, the notion that simply empowering communities in their current configuration must be progress is not restricted to the right; New Labour's 'new localism' also gave disproportionate voice to those with more 'time, resources and confidence to turn up and speak at a public meeting' (Turner, 2010, 59). But the scale of the Coalition's cuts places even more at stake than New Labour's new localism, risking a situation where the design and implementation of services will lack any significant input from the people most likely to depend on them. The result? Inadequate services governed by an impoverished politics which - even with the best will in the world - fails to understand or address the challenges that matter to the people who face them.
Ensuring that the provision of social goods is governed democratically is not easy. The democratic governance of state-run public services requires the government to pump substantial resources into both insulating these services from the market and maintaining representative political channels. These measures are aimed at levelling out a political playing field that would otherwise be churned and furrowed by inequalities arising from people's interaction with the market. But as non-state alternatives to public service provision become more viable, parties will have to shift their focus - an inclusive, collaborative politics must be developed around these new models of service provision. But it is not at all clear that the Big Society, with its powerlessness in the face of market inequalities, provides this inclusive vision.
The recommendation: a summary
Reformers promoting a good society rather than an impoverished 'big' society need to place concern for democracy at the heart of their efforts, and to recognise the centrality of the marketplace in any configuration of society. They should try to stimulate a grassroots politics of 'social learning': a collaborative process tasked with discovering and building up people's capacities to reconfigure the way they work. The aim of this politics should be to improve 'bad' work - work that leaves little room for co-operation and social contribution - into 'good' work - work that actively promotes these things.
This approach would give the Labour Party a chance to return to the optimistic conception of human potential at the heart of progressive socialism. This strand of socialist thought prioritises a co-operative politics of social learning, viewing this 'deep' form of democracy as both a means towards a good society and an end in itself. By reinstating democracy to the core of British socialism, Labour's answer to the Big Society could mark the return to a new programmatic politics of the left - one that wraps a manifesto for both changing a malfunctioning state and reforming an iniquitous market around an optimistic conception of human potential.
Political parties straddle the divide between civil society and the state, so party activists are uniquely positioned to promote this agenda. As Stella Creasy has noted, huge resources of time and energy are used up by grassroots Labour members in the organisation of and attendance at meetings (Creasy, 2010). Activists could redirect some of this energy towards building...