A big left-wing society?

Another week closer to the new government and I’m still bogged down trying to decipher our Big Society. It struck me that if an international development programme was all about ‘empowering communities on the ground to take charge of their own lives’ and ‘doing away with centralised donor conditions’ I would be cooing along happily.

It’s also worth noting, in a time where we’re routinely told radical progressive politics have no place here, the sentiments and language of Big Society is reminiscent of Hugo Chavez. You’re left to wonder what could have been if New Labour ever dared to tap into this.

In The Observer today, Cameron powerfully outlines the ideals of a bottom-up society.

So if parents want to set up a special school to fill the void in their locality, why should we not help them? If nurses believe they can deliver a better service, why should we not encourage them to form a co-operative and do it themselves? If a pioneering social enterprise can help people escape the spiral of drug addiction and crime, why should we not let them? If a private company can get people off benefits and into jobs, why should we not allow them?

Why indeed? Reading the (Orwell Prize shortlisted) blog of a guy who works in care for ‘bad teenagers’ emphasises the problems of over-centralised social care.

The criticism is not with the ideal but simply the fact that the Tories have committed so little funding for it. The Big Society bank will mop up dormant bank accounts, but is it really enough to unfurl a massive programme of social reform? The government is likely to spend £170bn on benefits alone this year, and we can see from this lovely picture how much is spent elsewhere.

Without the investment in things like Community Links I guess Big (Broken?) Society is just an excuse to cut the support government offers. So my questions to you all are, what do you make of the ideas? Could there be a left-wing version of the Big Society? What would it entail?

My first suggestion would be pushing co-operatives and co-operative-type legislation into the private sector, not just the public sector as Cameron suggests. What else?


2 thoughts on “A big left-wing society?

  1. Good post.

    Two issues spring to mind.

    Firstly, for it to work I think it has to be an ideology underpinning the work of all departments, not a nice little add-on. You could think of it like CSR – it’s no good businesses giving their employees half a day volunteering a year to paint a wall if they’re paying all their cleaners a pittance. Similarly, it would be no good chatting about a Big Society and grabbing some money from dormant bank accounts, if the rest of government policy is busy fragmenting society. On welfare, one of the biggest government pots, conservative policy seems to be doing just that – stigmatising people who aren’t married, creating a ‘them vs us’ mentality around benefit cheats, demonising young people, immigrants, etc.

    If you really wanted to introduce the Big Society into welfare, you could encourage benefit take-up rather than chasing fraud, crack down on tax evasion at the top rather than the bottom, make Jobcentres accountable in some way to their local communities (in the way hospitals and schools are), and much more.

    Even in areas like education, where there does seem to have been some credible attempt to apply the concept, many have pointed out the obvious problem, which is that you won’t end up with ‘society’ running schools, you’ll end up with a self-selecting bunch of people who don’t represent society at all.

  2. For all (three?) of you who haven’t spotted it, Madeleine Bunting wrote an excellent piece in The Guardian criticising the Tory idea of Big Society.

    Among other things it featured a heady endorsement of Community Links (top stuff Will) and argued that long-term mass social support will need more than just volunteers, and the effects are long-term and don’t fit easily into the sort of media accountability that politicians like (and led to the New Labour obsession with targets).

    Will, I heartily agree that without a thread running through the rest of policy, Big Society does seem a cynical addition to tap into a call for a progressive government.

    If we’re all in favour of a more grass-roots approach to social care though, how else do we go about it? How, for example, would you you make a Jobcentre accountable to its local community?

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