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.