by Dave Hodges
The “big society” sounds like one of those ill-defined phrases some policy wonk latches on to after some “blue sky thinking”. David Cameron may like to wax lyrical that his destiny in government is to create the big society, but to the casual observer it appears as nothing more than a well-intentioned sideshow that reveals the caring nature of our dear leader. It’s as if it was created to be attacked.
We know the rhetoric. Cameron argues that his aim is to shift power from central government to communities and to volunteers. Labour argues that the Tories’ devastating cuts undermine this very ideal and render it a mere smokescreen to hide Cameron’s real, more sinister intentions. Tessa Jowell rightly pointed out last week, in relation to the big society, that “under the indiscriminate impact of accelerated cuts, the essential elements of community life are slowly being starved of sustenance”.
It’s the right message, but the wrong target. There are some devastating cuts affecting the voluntary sector and providers of outsourced government programs. For instance, thousands marched on the “hardest hit” campaign, organised jointly by the disability benefits consortium and the UK disabled people’s council on the 11 May.
Many disabled people, those with long-term conditions and their families are seeing disgraceful cuts to the benefits and services they need to live their lives. We should be strongly arguing that this is wrong. But it’s not the big society to blame, it’s this government’s ill-considered bulldozer approach to cutting the deficit.
Aiming fire at the big society is not the answer. It is a positive, idealistic message that we sour with harsh home truths. We are the grumpy person in the corner who perks up adversely to criticise every time the opportunity arises.
We need a positive answer to the big society. How can the state enable voluntary organisations to flourish? How can it positively interact without the assumption of a top-down relationship? The state has a positive role to play in this, but importantly, not necessarily as the funder. Tom Gash has written an interesting article entitled government is not the only solution, which raises some valid points and gives an excellent example through “parent gyms”. These are organisations Labour needs to engage and learn from. In Lambeth, the cooperative council model is something the party should seek to explore further. Campaigning for more mutuals such as Chuka Umunna’s call for the re-mutualisation of Northern Rock is another avenue that should be studied in detail.
The big society seems like an easy target. Sometimes things are too easy. Focus our fire on destructive, unnecessary cuts where we find them. Focus our energy on providing a positive vision for what a big society, or whatever inimitable name we choose to give it, would look like.