Crossman, Etzioni, abstaining and the big society.

by Tom Watson

“One of the difficulties in politics is that politicians are shocked by those who are really prepared to let their thinking reach any conclusion. Political thinking consists in deciding on the conclusion first and then finding good arguments for it. An open mind is considered irresponsible – and perhaps it really is”.

It will be sixty years in November since Richard Crossman penned that entry in his diary. I think about that quote a lot; have done ever since I first read his diaries over many hours in the coffee shop of the national film theatre in 1984. It repeats back to me most days, particularly these dark days of opposition. Sometimes it’s the little things that trigger the memory of it.

This week, for example, the Labour party has done a lot of abstaining. The Tories are mired in a long, long internal argument about the European bill. Our corporate view is that much of the discussion, and subsequent backbench clauses to the bill, are private grief for the prime minister. For Labour MPs, the division bells have been closely followed by a text message with the words “we are abstaining”. I hate abstaining on anything. It seems so weak. Last night I cracked and decided to positively abstain, that is, to vote in both “aye” and “no” lobbies. A whip – friendly, polite, gently firm – asked me not to. I obliged. Is my thinking so unclear that I can’t even conclude to abstain right? It’s been a busy, stressful week but I was disappointed with myself for being so compliant.

As we begin the ascent to a new manifesto, we need our minds open. Central to our thinking will be how we articulate the role of the state in Cameron’s so-called “big society”. I suspect that “big society” for Cameron means Edwardian-style philanthropy – gentlemen of repute taking hansom carriages to disreputable neighbourhoods in order to dispense good deeds to needy.

His neighbour, Osborne, a man whom I suspect has never waved a tin on a British Legion flag day, sees the “big sociey” as a metaphor for dismantling the large pillars he sees holding up the public sector. Both are wrong – but so too would it be wrong for us to take an adversely critical position on every aspect of the “big society” debate. I’m certain there is a role for social enterprise in delivering more public services, for example. Just talk to Sir Stephen Bubb of the association of chief executives of voluntary organisations (ACEVO) to learn of the many examples where the voluntary sector delivers a caring, value for money service in flexible and responsive ways that the state sector finds hard to achieve.

I’m re-reading The Spirit of Community by Amitai Etzioni. I’ve followed the spiritual leader of communitarians since attending a lecture by him with Gloria De Piero in the mid-nineties. At the time I found him a little hectoring. Gloria, on the other hand, queued for his autograph. She’s always been ahead of me. It’s time the great man’s work was dusted down by the shadow cabinet.

“Only if the family cannot cope should the local community become involved. Only if the problem is too big for it should the state become involved”, says Etzioni. For him, restoring civic virtues is central to a good – call it “big” – society. There’s much merit in his thesis. It‘s a challenge for the Labour party though. The powerless left is keen on rights. We find it harder to campaign for more responsibilities. Yet we should be.

If we can formulate a coherent mantra for the role of the state in Cameron’s big society, there is a chance for us to meet the case of that other great communitarian, Moss Evans. Moss said “Money is not everything, but it does make poverty tolerable”. These Tories are going to hurt a lot of poor people in the next 36 months. Our case to the leafy glades has to be that it is in the interests the “big society” to make sure that struggling families are not living in misery. We may be able to win that argument, but only by being clear about the expectations we have for all, regardless of class or income: work hard at school, take a job if one is available, treat your neighbours with respect, put back into society what you take out. These are simple, timeless values. Ones that we need to recapture for Labour.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.

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