Margaret Thatcher said that there is no such thing as society; Iain Duncan Smith said that there is. David Cameron talked up the big society, and Ed Miliband launched his leadership with a speech on the good society.
The upcoming Labour party conference will allegedly adopt the theme of the “relationship society.” Dan Hodges, the blogger who leaked this news, may have been duped. For the sake of the public understanding of politics, let’s hope he was.
Whether true or false, it’s a timely reminder that party conferences are now almost completely irrelevant to the policy formulation process. Instead, they are significant largely as moments of political positioning. Watch out in particular for the word “society,” political speak for “this is who I am, this is how I’d like things to be.” It’s primary colours stuff.
Only it ought to be more primary, because those outside of the Westminster village are often left bemused. All these “societies” take some decoding – the relationship society, if it exists, is an esoteric porridge of Labour peer Maurice Glasman, political philosopher Michael Sandel and the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.
This isn’t to say that politicians shouldn’t venture into the realm of political philosophy. They just have to do it in a way that makes it intelligible. As with Miliband’s recent speech on “predistribution,” the technical principles, once unpacked, could be well received by a broad audience. These are good instincts, representative of a return to Labour traditions that were buried with John Smith: an ethical, humanist socialism. From a positioning point of view, Labour could do worse.
Then, they have to show that they mean it. Once persuaded that a party has a meaningful and attractive vision, the general public has a nasty habit of expecting said political party to do something to bring it into existence. Rowan Williams described the big society as “aspirational waffle,” and all these ideas are constantly in danger of being seen as such.
Politicians – particularly in the Labour pary – should heed the warning signs. Labour takes on the spirit of RH Tawney in opposition and the spirit of Beatrice and Sidney Webb when in power. At first, New Labour was pretty closely attuned to “what really mattered” to people. Manifestly, it failed to maintain that instinct. This is the party’s unique and depressing way of campaigning in poetry and governing in prose.
It is to Miliband’s credit that he almost immediately took on the language of ethical socialism, consistently speaking of the “good society.” He’s tapping into the sentiment that there is something wrong that needs fixing. We’re back with Tawney-ish ideas, looking for a deeper democratisation of the economy and a reassessment of Labour’s love affair with the state.
It’s hopeful and potentially attention grabbing. But when democratic politics are periodically reduced to the demagogic process of winning an election, it would take some political bravery to grapple with the big questions. The relationship society, the good society, the big society – can they ever be anything other than aspirational waffle?