We must be ready to act when big society fails the people, says Warren Morgan

“There is no such thing as society”.

Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote from an interview with Woman’s Own actually came quite late in her premiership, in October 1987. It is David Cameron who, in just the opening few months of power, is seeking to make that statement a reality.

Whether reducing the scope of government through far-reaching cuts or through deregulation at every level (from removing speed cameras to abolishing the Audit Commission, both Tory government creations), the new government is rolling back the state faster than at any time in the last Tory administration. Indeed the pace of change is likely to be greater than at any time since the Attlee government of 1945-51. October’s spending review will accelerate that change even further.

The Tory narrative on eliminating both the debt and Labour’s “bloated state” has been bought by much of the electorate in the south east as there is little to challenge it. A by-election gain by the Tories from Labour in Kent last week is evidence that their national 42% poll rating is no illusion waiting to be swiftly punctured by a fresh face at Labour’s helm, in this part of England at least.

There’s no doubt that Labour is already starting its recovery in traditional territory, and its strength in London is heartening. Remember, however, that victory in 1997 after almost two decades in opposition only came with significant breakthroughs in Hampshire, Sussex and Kent. With Cameron looking for a swift reduction in parliamentary seats under cover from the AV referendum, the task of avoiding yet another long period on the opposition benches will be daunting unless we can win back seats there.

To win again, Labour under its new leader must speak to both the aspirational estate dweller and the jaded Guardian reader, pulling the former back from the Tories and the latter back from the Greens or non-voting. As much of the Lib Dem vote will go Tories as Labour along the channel coast and Weald. Here, pain from Tory cuts is as likely to be blamed on Labour spending as Conservative ideology. Without watchdogs or a critical media, much of the rapid realignment of the public realm will be allowed to pass unchecked, unless Labour acts.

To stand the chance of winning again Labour must have a presence on the ground in every seat where there is an outside hope of winning in 2015, not just listening to but being part of communities and their campaigns. A strong and active base must embed itself in neighbourhoods, not be remote. We cannot win by emerging only infrequently from GC meetings to deliver the occasional leaflet. We must mobilise our newly increased membership. Only by earning trust and through word of mouth contact will Labour expose the truths behind Tory claims that cuts are unavoidable when, like in Brighton and Hove, they sit on millions in reserves just waiting to fund pre-election tax cuts whilst axing services like Connexions.

In the “big society”, things will go wrong. People will inevitably fall, and fall hard, through the ever widening gaps in an increasingly threadbare safety net. Government will blame commissioners, commissioners will blame service providers, service providers will blame government. When voters look at the news or out of their windows and ask “whose fault is this?” We must lay the blame fairly and squarely at the feet of a Conservative government which has pulled back the state from any meaningful role in making society better, absolving responsibility to the voluntary sector, faith groups and charities.

Labour’s overly long and needlessly divisive leadership election cannot be resolved soon enough. With few substantial policy differences between most of the candidates, the party needs to unite quickly behind the winner and make best use of the networks, contacts and ideas built by all of the five campaign teams. New Labour, Blairite and Brownite labelling must be left to history.

The new leader needs to put forward a clear and modern Labour vision of a state that does build a better society, one that does step in to support, enable and promote better lives for individuals, families and communities, rather than leaving it to the kindness of strangers.

Warren Morgan is a Labour & Co-operative councillor on Brighton & Hove city council.

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4 Responses to “We must be ready to act when big society fails the people, says Warren Morgan”

  1. I agree with much of the detailed analysis here, but I think the foundations of the argument are entirely wrong.

    Labour needs to win in the south because we need to be a national party. But our victory in 1997 was not down to victories in the south-east and Labour can easily win without it.

    In fact, we won only 22 seats in the south-east region that year. Two of those were holds. In other words, only about one in seven of the seats we gained came from the south-east and we controlled only around a quarter of the seats in the region. We did not win the region. We won some urban areas within the region, many of which (Slough, Southampton Test, Kemptown and Pavillion) we’d have won anyway based on national swing. Yes, we had some massive breakthroughs (Hastings and Hove spring to mind) and we did very well in north Kent, but that was a bonus, not the linchpin of our victory.

    I’ll agree we need to target Guardian readers and estate dwellers, although that’s not a problem confined to the south-east, or even to the south. I will definitely agree that we need to reestablish ourselves from the grassroots up in these areas, by campaigning (and by rebuilding our strength on local councils). You’re very likely right about some support from the Lib Dems going to the Tories, although I don’t think that matters in most of the Weald, as we’ll struggle to ever win it, and in seaside towns like Hastings there will always be a strong anti-Tory vote, so I’d anticipate a start from a better base than you argue for.

    Labour should not think about how it wins back the south-east as if that is the solution to electoral victory. It should win back bits of the south-east because the residents of those area need a Labour MP as much as they need a Labour government, but Labour’s majority does not depend on winning anywhere south of the midlands save London.

    If Labour wants to get back in to power, it needs to win the midlands marginals it lost last time plus a dozen or so seats in East Anglia, the south-east and the south-west. If those of us in these areas want to win any more, we need to do that ourselves.

  2. Warren Morgan says:

    Edward, thanks for your comments and feedback. Agreed that Labour can win without the South East, but as you say we need Labour MPs here and a Labour government needs the legitimacy of MPs in all regions/nations – something the current govt lacks. My point re “non Labour” seats here in Sussex and elsewhere is that a Lib Dem collapse will leave seats like Eastbourne and potentially Lewes to fall to the Tories, giving Labour a bigger mountain to climb in terms of seats.

  3. Mike says:

    shame Milburn couldnt make it back today for Cleggs announcement that he is to work for the Coalition

    He was on holiday in Bali

    Of Course !!!

    Thats social mobility

  4. I agree that that’s a problem initially in seats like Lewes and Eastbourne, although the flipside of that is that a collapse in the Lib Dem vote could put us in contention in seats like Canterbury or Colchester where there’s a plausible anti-Tory majority in need of unification (well, it could if Bob Russell wasn’t sensibly backing away from the coalition).

    I’d also suggest that the Lib Dems holding on there is worse for us long term. It fractures the anti-Tory vote and it gives them a redoubt from which to try to rehabilitate themselves. I think we need to sink them totally and hope that enough of their support favours us over the Tories. If they don’t, then it’s not realistically an area we’re likely to win, I’d argue.

    On the other hand, I won’t deny there’s considerable downside risk there.

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