The Big Society and the Big Con

This has not been the most inspiring of elections. Three broadly similar parties are fighting for the right to manage the inevitable post-crunch spending cuts and this leaves precious little wiggle room for anything philosophical, creative or inspiring.

That said, the Conservatives have at least pretended to try something new with their “Big Society” shibboleth. The name is stupid and vague, and the negative connotations of the word “big” (cf. “big government”, “too big to fail”) are poor. So far it’s gone down like a lead balloon. Even Cameron’s own people aren’t keen on the idea.

Nevertheless, I’m intrigued. While the Tories’ views aren’t going to chime in with my left-wing sympathies, doesn’t the Big Society at least have a chance of appealing to my anarchist/governments-should-fear-their-people politics, right? So I read the full proposal (PDF). And this is what I think are the three main tranches of it:

  • More money for grassroots and community organisations – in part funded by a new “Big Society Bank” funded from unclaimed bank assets.
  • Create and train an ‘neighbourhood army’ of ‘community organisers’ – to form neighbourhood groups where there are none.
  • Allow these neighbourhood groups & communities to form social enterprises and take control of public services – local people can run their own schools, libraries or prisons (alright, maybe not that last one).

What’s not to love about that? Well, plenty. Quite apart from the fact most people aren’t interested in doing the government’s work for them, it looks a pretty convenient way of palming off responsibility. It will be our worst schools and public services that get dumped on the doorstep of these social enterprises, and despite all the talk of funding, the sums involved are paltry. How much money the Big Society Bank will get is not specified – the ‘hundreds of millions’ figure seems rather hopefully plucked from the air without any real commitment.

Then there’s the question of who will run these groups. The Conservatives used to say that there’s no such thing as society. Now they appear to be saying there’s no such thing as community. Reading this proposal, you could be fooled into thinking that there are no community organisations in the country and so they’re going to train everyone up to rediscover this long-lost art. This is of course bollocks – there are plenty of existing community organisations and societies out there. Shamefully, there is not a single mention of the words “union” or “co-operative” in the entire document, and the word “mutual” is only used in the conceptual adjective “mutuality”.

The Big Society seems to ignore these already existing bodies and institutions and is instead hell-bent on creating a ‘neighbourhood army’ to usurp them. 5,000 people will be trained up – quite who they are, and who will train them, and what on, isn’t covered in great detail. And do we even need to train people on how to organise communities? The Conservative Party cites Saul Alinsky and Barack Obama as inspirations, but Alinsky’s model of community organisation was created in the 50s and Obama’s work in the 80s and early 90s, before the Internet and the power to organise without organisations.

But finally, the biggest reason why the Big Society is such a big con, is the lie that it is devolving power. Ironically, the Big Society is going to be hardest to implement in Wales and Scotland, as the devolved governments there have the relevant powers, not Westminster. Instead, the Conservatives make it quite clear that these ’empowered’ services are going to have to subscribe to their worldview from the start. On page 1 of the Big Society proposal:

We have developed a detailed framework for opening up public services to new suppliers, and improving accountability and value for money through techniques like payment-by-results, competitive tendering, publishing performance information, and giving people the opportunity to choose between competing providers.

So the rules of the game for anyone wanting to join the Big Society are made clear – conform to our New Labour Conservative brand of politics, or don’t bother trying. No wonder they need to train up 5,000 community organisers – someone needs to ‘educate’ people into doing things their way.

Big Society has taken a bit of a back seat in the campaign recently – with opinion poll results showing a reasonably even split between the parties. And last night in a Party Election Broadcast, the Tory fear machine went into overdrive – horrified that 33% of the vote will not give them 100% control of government, they launched an execrable spoof ad for the “Hung Parliament Party” Conveniently ignoring the fact that we already have a hung parliament operating in the UK for the past three years, north of the border, it’s also curiously anti-politics, slating politicians for doing deals behind closed doors, ignoring the fact they are politicians themselves and are currently begging us to give them the right to make backroom deals for another five years.

In this PEB lies the plain and ugly truth about the philosophy behind the “Big Society”. The Conservatives try to give the impression they want to share power with ordinary people, but it’s clear that under absolutely no circumstances do they want to share power with anyone but themselves. “Big Society” is nothing more than an attempt to shirk responsibility for the work of government onto the poorly-funded and inexperienced, while keeping all the power themselves. This is not devolution, or empowerment. It’s a con.

Some bits and pieces on the #debill

The Digital Economy Act is now law, after being rushed through in the washup in the last days of a now-dissolved Parliament. Even though the final result was by and large a crushing disappointment – the level of debate and interaction with the bill online has been remarkable. For me, it was the first time I watched a House of Commons debate live with close interest since (I think) the 2006 Terrorism Act (something which helped dwindle my interest in politics somewhat. By now we’ve all gone over a million times the various nasty aspects of a law that will prove counter to free expression and the economy, but indulge me with a few final thoughts.

Parliament’s processes are broken
The wash-up is a truly ludicrous process; while I can just about see the point of making sure finance bills and the like are approved so that the Treasury still has money to spend while Parliament is dissolved, rushing through any sort of complicated or controversial legislation is madness. But of course, the wash-up is only the symptom, not the problem itself. The state opening of Parliament was on November 18, and this session of Parliament could only have lasted five months at best. Yet 16 bills were proposed by the government, only two fewer than the previous year’s full session. Allowing the government to produce such unwieldy programmes, and to make Parliament sit for less than half a year is ridiculous; as is having letting the government determine the timing of an election. A fixed-term Parliament, with elections and state openings timed sensibly to allow full programmes of debate, would have prevented this d├ębacle.

Much hoo-har has been made about the low attendance at the Bill’s second and third readings. By the end of the third reading I estimated there were about 75 MPs in the House chamber. Yet 240 voted; Phil Gyford has attempted to come to their defence saying they may have had other work to do; sadly, as Bill Cash pointed out during the debate, the vast majority of those voting were waiting outside, some in the bar, having been told by the whips to turn up as and when. It’s ridiculous to expect MPs who did not attend a debate to be have the right to vote in it; you could have some form of swipe card system – they can clock in and out of debates and committees, and unless they spent, say, at least half of their time in a particular reading or committee stage for a bill, then they can’t vote in the division. Intrusive surveillance at its finest, but then they should get a taste of what the rest of us go through.

And don’t even let me get started on the lack of proper representation in the Commons, the undue influence of the whips, or the special interest groups. A few dodgy expenses seems pretty mundane in comparison.

Some Parliamentarians are actually alright
From the above, you might expect me to have a loathing resentment of MPs and this is where I have a go at them for being ignorant corrupt bastards etc. Actually, I was quite pleased with the quality and level of the debate of the third reading; it’s easy to dismiss the Commons as a bunch of old white men who are out of touch, but many of the debaters in the third reading showed either a decent understanding and experience of the complexities surrounding the bill, or if they didn’t have the technical know-how, they at least had the humility to argue it should be given greater scrutiny in committee by those that did. Digital rights mensch Tom Watson quite rightly gets the majority of the plaudits, but Nick Palmer, John Hemming and (I never though I’d say this…) Bill Cash were among those MPs who argued cogently and constructively.

Support for the third reading, apart from the government, by the way, was pretty thin – Stephen Pound trying his best to show off his groovy dad credentials by talking about finding the next Stiff Little Fingers, and Denis MacShane stumbling in after a long dinner and rambling about how all socialists should combined together to save journalism or some other such nonsense. My idea above for forcing MPs to sit in the debates they vote on could have the disadvantage in stuffing the benches with a lot more stooges spouting equally irrelevant rubbish, I suppose, so I won’t claim for one minute that it is the only solution to fixing things.

Nick Clegg blew it
The Liberal Democrats had a real chance to secure the support of a huge clutch of educated, savvy and vociferous voters tired of the usual politics and angry with the parliamentary process, possibly for a generation. Instead, he blew it. There was no strong and principled line against the bill from the Lib Dems and it was a clear sign of lack of leadership from Clegg (about whom I already had doubts); he let his spokesman for culture, media and sport jointly propose with the Tories an utterly illiberal amendment into the Lords. After a backlash from their own party members, Don Foster tried to rally a rearguard action in the Commons, but the fact only 18 Lib Dem MPs out of 63 bothered to turn up for the final vote showed how little the party leadership really cared.

You might argue that the other 45 Lib Dem MPs were busy doing something else with an election coming up, but then again, this was midway in wash-up week – they should be in the Commons to work. And this was a division where Ian Paisley turned up to vote. Yes, that Ian Paisley – 84 years old, about to retire from Parliament and politics for good to spend more time with his collection of Dana records. It was the last vote of his Commons career and he had nothing to gain from it, but even he found the principles to oppose it and made the effort to mark a vote against.

While I discreetly encourage you to reward the Lib Dem MPs who did bother to turn up in the forthcoming election (but probably not the DUP in North Antrim, it has to be said), the 45 who didn’t, and the party in general, do not get my endorsement, nor will I be voting Lib Dem this coming election. It was the final straw, and an especially poor show in the same week the Lib Dems smugly paraded their Labservative campaign, the leadership showed they lack the stomach to fully oppose something illiberal.

Ed Vaizey – what a tit, eh?
I shouldn’t just have a go at the Lib Dems. After all the Conservatives are the official Opposition and made their objections to the bill’s many flaws but agreed not to oppose the bill in an almighty stitch-up. A promise to re-review the law after they get into power at the election will probably dissolve away if they win, I’ll wager. But nothing summed the Tories up more than the dreadful Ed Vaizey and his waste of the House’s time using the debate as an excuse for a partisan and highly personal attack on those moving the amendments, rather than details of the bill. It was pathetic. Exactly what I meant when I said “rotten from the top down“. Yet Vaizey and his ilk (on both sides of the House) will be happily returned to Parliament after the election to bray for another five years.

#debill does matter
Coming back to Phil Gyford’s post on the outrage (which is one of the best post-#debill posts I’ve read) – he’s right to point out some of the shriller and more ridiculous anti-bill coverage on Twitter, like the “I choose not to recognise #debill” wankery going on – you can’t choose not to ignore a law you don’t like. But why are people angry about #debill? Is it just because we don’t want our toys taken away from us. Or is it because many of us, our livelihoods as well as our hobbies and pleasures, have come about because of the digital revolution? The music and film industries (which let’s remember are more distribution than creative) may contribute heavily to our economies (about US$5/6bn each), but that’s tiny compared to what can be affected – the telecomms industry alone in the UK is worth about US$65bn.

Start factoring in the value added to many other industries that an open, free and vibrant internet provides, and you can start seeing how frustrating it is to see the debate framed as merely being a fight to “save” our creativity from piracy with no side effects. This does not mean sacrificing all of the content distribution industries on the altar of an unrestricted internet, but it does require a realistic realisation that copyright infringement is inevitable but it is possible to survive and even thrive in a post-digital world. The digital music market is starting to turn the corner – online music sales are now outstripping the loss from physical purchases, but going back to old model of treating ordinary people like thieves and scum is not going to make them any more popular.

What about the “big” stuff?
No lawmaking procedure has gone under more scrutiny by citizens in the UK online than the progress of this bill. You can quite rightly wonder what would happen if every bill was given the same level of scrutiny. More cynically, you could point out how bad all the other bills must be, and accuse the UK digital & media community of being only concerned with their own lot and not the issues that “really” matter like schools or hospitals or wars. There is some truth in that, perhaps, but it’s not true to say the UK digital community don’t care about other aspects of how the country is governed – the #welovethenhs campaign being one example.

It’s also not true that the digital-haves are in a world of their own. I know people who are teachers, doctors, civil servants and military personnel who use services such as Twitter, delicious and Facebook to share and say things. However thanks to the responsibilities of their job, and the rules and ethics they are bound to, it makes publicly criticising or bringing politics into their workplace less easy than those of us in the digital industries (not to mention that often these sites are blocked at workplaces). From my recollection, by and large all the early bloggers working in public services were pseudonymous – and though some have voluntarily ‘come out’ and been welcomed in their organisations, others (like Night Jack) ended up being disciplined for merely telling the truth about their jobs. Stepping out of line can have its costs.

In contrast, those that had better knowledge of the digital economy and its workings occupy this space much more comfortably and a lot more of the time. And as this is a newer and more loosely-grouped alliance of interests, the people scrutinising the bill have not been able to yet create powerful trade associations or unions (not for one moment discounting the excellent work ORG have done). It’s no surprise they turned to the channels they were more familiar with to carry out their protestations. On the other hand, doctors and teachers have more established organisations such as the BMA and NUT through which they can make their own representations to government collectively without compromising professionals individually.

So just because a non-digital bill receives less scrutiny from the digerati does not necessarily mean every bill we pass receives less attention than the Digital Economy Act, especially when scrutiny may be applied through channels other than the Internet. But in principle, it would probably be a good thing if all legislation was given the same level of public dissection by experts as the Digital Economy Act. Doing so would hopefully help raise awareness among the wider public largely turned off by politics in exposing the flaws of the political process, yet be constructive at the same time – pointing out not what only was wrong but ways of improving it. This applies particularly in a Parliament which was not being hurried through the wash-up and bad legislation stood a chance of getting a more timely look by MPs.

So to produce this better scrutiny, how do we organise ourselves so that in future the experts on whatever bill is being debated, whether it be about schools, hospitals, law and order, get better access to the same tools the anti-#debill protesters had, without compromising their ability to do their jobs or their position of trust? Much of the data are there, like TheyWorkForYou and Public Whip, but no-one has quite yet built the tools or organisations to bridge these vastly useful repositories and APIs with how other, less digital, professions work and campaign. Even with the information available, the complex legal language bills are written in, and Parliament’s own quirks of procedure, are further obstacles to understanding the process and educating a wider public. Experts of all kinds – technical, legal as well as those in whatever fields the legislation affects, need to be brought together to make the information out there work to its full potential, and to make our politicians more accountable.