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August 3, 2010

Big Society – an idea worth thinking about

One of the most interesting things about David Cameron’s Big Idea has been the reaction to it – from all sides of the political spectrum. Using a mixture of ill-disguised scorn and derision, senior Tory figures such as Boris Johnson have consistently dismissed it.  Labour, understandably, have felt free to decry it as a return to "a 19th-century or US-style view of our welfare state”. But in fact closer inspection might reveal that some of the underlying ideas have real merit

Jonathon Freedland, Guardian

The most common reaction to David Cameron’s “big society” idea is mockery. Even the Tories can’t resist. The prime minister had barely launched the project on Monday when Boris Johnson seized the chance to take another pop at his arch-rival. “We must tackle the scourge of obesity, or the big society, as it’s sometimes known,” smirked the London mayor. That was polite compared to the senior Conservative who, during the election campaign, said of the idea that could come to define Cameronism: “The big society is bollocks.”

Labour can hardly be blamed for wanting to join in this kickfest. Ed Miliband wasted no time, branding the big society – which hopes to see citizens, local communities, voluntary groups and philanthropists take on tasks currently performed by central government – a return to “a 19th-century or US-style view of our welfare state”, comparisons that were not meant as compliments. Yet insults and sniggers, however enjoyable, might not be the right response. For this is a rare case of the wrong person at the wrong time and in the wrong way delivering the right idea – an idea that Labour and the left would be foolish to reject.

That Cameron and the coalition are the wrong bearers of this message should be obvious. For what, by their own account, is the chief mission of this government? The slashing of the deficit. That instantly renders suspect any plan to shift responsibility away from government. Even the Telegraph reported Monday’s launch under the headline: “Big society is not a cover for spending cuts, insists Cameron.” When money is as tight as it is now, when ministers are cutting not just fat but flesh, people will inevitably assume that government passing the baton to what Eric Pickles calls “folks”, is a fancy way of dressing up shrunken budgets.

That would be true of any government proposing such an approach in an age of austerity. But the suspicion is doubled when the government is led by a Conservative. For we know that the party has an ideological attachment to the apparent corollary of a big society: a small state. Voters can hardly be blamed for wondering if Cameron, a former PR man, has not simply lighted upon a more appealing sell for the old Thatcherite product. Sure, he now speaks of rolling forward the frontiers of society, rather than rolling back the frontiers of the state, but they could easily amount to the same thing. On this logic, a reverse version of the Nixon-to-China principle holds: only a government of the state-supporting left could advocate a big society without having its motives impugned.

Cameron likes to suggest that the big society chimes with an ethos that lies deep in Toryism. All those community groups doing things for themselves are surely Edmund Burke’s little platoons. Yet whatever ideals pre-industrial Toryism cherished, they are a long way from the world-view of the post-Thatcher Conservative party. Maurice Glasman, of the grassroots London Citizens movement, notes that what people need if they are to take on some of the communal tasks envisaged by Cameron is a commitment to the place they live in and the time to get involved. And time means money. “If you’ve got to do two jobs to survive, how are you going to have the time to be a school governor?”

The Conservatives have no answer to that, because they are committed to a doctrine that demands maximum flexibility of labour – even if that means getting on your bike and moving to the other end of the country – and that refuses to legislate for a living, as opposed to a minimum, wage. A big society needs people anchored in place and blessed with time, yet Conservative economics grants neither – except to the well-off.

The problems don’t end there. The brief record of the coalition reveals enough contradictions to undermine one’s confidence. A core tenet of the big society, at least as Cameron explains it, is a preference for the local over the central: the word “local” appeared 19 times in his Monday speech. And yet his education policy seems predicated on a quiet loathing for local education authorities, taking schools that are currently under the wing of an LEA and turning them into academies answerable to central government or else creating “free” schools, also out of the LEA’s reach.

Cameron lauds the work of voluntary groups and social enterprises who do, as he rightly says, inspiring work. Yet talk to those groups and many now fear for their existence. They know that government departments or local councils desperate to save money will look first to contracts with third sector providers like them: how much easier to terminate a contract with, or cut a grant to, an outside body than to lay off your own staff?

All of which adds up to a lot of bathwater sloshing around Cameron’s big idea. However tempting it would be for Labour to throw the whole lot out, it should beware – for there is a baby in there, too, one to which Labour has a decent claim of paternity.

To find it, it’s worth digging into Labour’s roots. There you will find the Co-operative movement, friendly and mutual societies, as well as the trade unions, out of which Labour was forged. The ethos of collective organisation and self-help predated the Fabian emphasis on central government and the later obsession with state ownership.

What those Labour pioneers understood was that more was at stake than providing services efficiently; that there was an extra, human value in people coming together and working for the common good. The sociologists speak of the “social capital” that accrues when people form such connections with each other. There is, as Cameron argued, a “passivity” that can result – and has resulted in Britain – when people habitually look upward, for solutions, like feudal serfs waiting for the baron’s nod.

There is no reason for people on the left to be opposed to a society made up of neighbours who don’t wait for the council to clean up a needle-strewn park, but do it themselves. Indeed, Labour will make a great mistake if they put themselves on the opposite – and wrong – side of the idea at the heart of the big society. For they will be offering an impoverished notion of what it is to be on the left, reducing it to mere statism.

Instead, Labour needs to seize this idea from Cameron, reclaim its Labour origins – and then improve it. That would start with a realisation that a truly big society does not entail public services on the cheap. In fact, the reverse is true. According to Hilary Cottam, whose pioneering work with the Southwark Circle – a remarkable service run by, for and with the elderly – has been praised by Cameron: “This work couldn’t have happened without state investment.” Social entrepreneurs like her can’t take out a loan for what they do; they’re not running a business. They need public money, often large amounts of it. Only then, once the initial research is done and the scheme is bedded in, can the authorities, local or central, expect to save money. Labour can make that case. But the deficit-fetishists of the coalition, cutting left and right, cannot.

Labour can also notice the big gap in Cameron’s big society. His idea rests on the notion that the only obstacle in people’s way is the state. But what’s good for the public sector state is surely good for the private sector gander. Why not nurture a shift in power away from the banks and to local credit unions? If we’re going to have academies, why not encourage a local university to be the sponsor, rather than big business?

So yes, Cameron should be hammered on some of the contradictions and ugly motives behind the big society. The name itself is laughable. But there’s a good idea in there, screaming to get out. Labour should grab it – and claim it as its own.