Has David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ project of de-layering the state and recalibrating civil society been fatally derailed by austerity economics and a failure of vision? Questions of this kind were coming from party gurus like Philip Blond, not just opponents, as the Conservatives gathered for their annual conference in Birmingham.
With deep public spending cuts starting to bite and living standards for the largest swathe of the population being pinned back, the Tories seem stuck at under 35 per cent in poll after poll. Long-term electoral demographics now suggest that they will struggle to come out anywhere near on top at the next General Election.
The response at the Conservative Party's 2012 annual conference in Birmingham has been to play hardball with £10.5 billion more welfare cuts from the platform, while sounding a more 'caring' note on the fringe - appealing respectively to core supporters and the wider electorate, it is hoped. The clear contradictions are showing, however.
Seeking to capitalise on any whiff of Coalition crisis, Labour leader Ed Milliband used his own conference moment to try to project himself as something more popularly resonant with ordinary voters than a clever student who got lucky and ended up leading a political party – which is how too many still see him.
As a piece of political theatre, his one-hour plus speech, made without notes or podium, was undoubtedly riveting. By pitching Labour as the ‘One Nation Party’, Milliband was not just seeking to steal the Coalition’s ‘Big Society’ clothes. He was also trying to carve out a plausible political space to distinguish his re-energised battalions from what is perceived to be the profligacy of Old Labour on the one hand, and the degeneration of Blair’s ‘Third Way’ into saturated opportunism on the other.
The question about what Labour would actually do with power in deficit-driven Britain is a matter somewhat distanced from its supremo’s grand speechifying, of course. As the policy territory between the three largest parties narrows, the gap between aspirational rhetoric and practical delivery appear to grow ever greater.
Not that the Liberal Democrats even succeeded with the former. The sound-bite that the media took away from their conference was “I’m Sorry”, popularised by an unflattering auto-tuned YouTube version of hapless Nick Clegg’s attempt at damage limitation for his toxic yellow brand.
Many grassroots Lib Dems still harbour the dream of a balancing coalition with Labour after the next election. But right now it looks as if they would be lucky to be in a position even to contemplate that possibility.
Meanwhile, Labour’s campaign managers believe that the party has to be seen to combine what one wonk described to me recently as “unifying vision and tough wisdom”. That is, they have to sound inspirational and cautious all at once - in a manner not dissimilar to the Tories' apparent attempts to be both nasty and nice for different audiences.
Perhaps this explains the apparent Labour u-turn on the very social security universalism that Ed Milliband was until recently championing. For Liam Byrne and Johann Lamont are now spearheading a campaign to make means-tested and restricted benefits acceptable on the left.
The danger in this is that welfare becomes seen as a matter for addressing ghettoised poverty, rather than a way of creating a genuinely inclusive social framework buttressed by fair taxation and redistributive economics. That is the levelling goal that until now has formed the common, galvanising thread between Labour’s various tribes.
But with 'the big three' parties all singing from essentially the same austerity hymn sheet and promising cuts in social security that differ mainly in degree, it is surely the most vulnerable in society who are set to be the biggest losers from the conference season political jamborees.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted and slightly expanded from his October 2012 politics column in Third Way, the magazine of Christian comment on culture and society. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/