We need a more sophisticated response to the big society, says Peter Watt

I know what is best for me and what is best for my family. You don’t.

I suspect that most people in the Labour party feel the same about themselves and their families.  By and large, we are a pretty independently minded bunch which doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do, how to think and how to vote in (say) internal elections.  Presumably this is because we think that we are intelligent, capable of free thinking and able to take decisions for ourselves?

So why do we think that voters want us making so many decisions for them?  We have set rules about what school people can send their kids to; what, when and how their home-support services are delivered if they are infirm; when they can visit the GP; which part of town they can live in and even what sort of food they can eat or feed to their families.  Of course if you are wealthy enough then you can bypass the rules that we set and decide for yourself.  No, our rules are very inequitable and only apply to those who can’t afford to buy their way out of sticking to them.  Understandably people are beginning to say “enough – I want to make some decisions for myself.”

Unless we begin to really understand that people wanting to be in control of their lives, wanting to better themselves, is not just a middle-class pursuit, then we will continue to struggle.  And the key concept is “wanting to better themselves – not just wanting us to make it better for them.  Our problem is that we often instinctively, and with good intention, feel that we know best what will work for other people.  The result is that we have tended to have a one size fits all approach to the delivery of public services that are in reality delivered to people with very differing needs, lifestyles, attitudes and values.  And then we wonder why, despite the huge investment, teenage pregnancies are still rising, obesity is increasing, and in some areas and in some families worklessness appears to remain intractable.

It is for that reason that we must avoid rejecting the “big society” approach out-of-hand.  If we put aside tribal instincts that the Tories raised it first, actually what is the problem for the left?  Surely we must be in favour of individuals taking control of their lives and managing their own services if they want to? They are, after all, in the best place to decide what works and what doesn’t.  Surely we are not going to deny that volunteering is a good thing and that volunteers could well bring valuable experience and enthusiasm to the delivery of services?  Or that a charity working in a particular field may very well have an insight that puts it in an ideal position to deliver something currently being delivered by the state?

So what should our response to the big society be?  Well,  our response to has to be a bit more sophisticated than “we, the state, knows best”.  We often don’t.  It should be a progressive response that accepts that the state is not, in fact, the only vehicle for delivering fairness.  We should instead look at what support people may actually need to become co-producers of their own services and so feel more in control of their own lives making decisions for themselves.  Because the reality is that while some people will want to take part in a re-birth of local civic society, many, many more people will not.

They just want and expect their services delivered.  Some of them will be able to afford to remain indifferent. But those who cannot afford this luxury and are the most dependent on public sector services risk being further left behind.  The challenge is finding effective strategies that involve such people in the decisions that affect them so that they are able to begin to take control of their own lives.  That element of a big society approach will by necessity have to be very individualised, bespoke and local – addressing people’s values, lifestyles, hopes and dreams.  Exactly what the state does very badly.

Now that really would be a progressive response to the big society.  Of course, we could also continue just telling ourselves that we know best and keep delivering services that often don’t work to people who don’t want them.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.

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6 Responses to “We need a more sophisticated response to the big society, says Peter Watt”

  1. Phil Morgan says:

    I tend to agree – if Labour were in Government now we’d want them to be advocating something similar. At what point did Labour end up as statists with only the state able to offer ways forward and drop self reliance and community action. Will it really help for Labour to be seen as the supporter of producer of public services rather than recipients? If anything whilst the concept of the Big Society is quite impressive it’s reality – taking over the odd pub is pitiful compared to what people actually do already. Labour needs to outflank the Tories and look to go much further in terms of turning the state on it’s head through binding contracts with communities and meaningful scrutiny of services.

  2. Michael Fitchett says:

    Of course, our politics should be about how people can take control over their own lives. Cameron did not think of it first. We did. Ernest Bevin said as long ago as 1919 when he first stood for Parliament that enabling people to control their own lives was what he was in politics for. That is why he played a lead role in forming the T & G. So why did our side of politics ever think differently?

  3. James says:

    It is not that we will be able to shape the delivery of services we need – rather they will open up service delivery to rent-seeking firms which have a fiduciary duty to provide a return to their shareholders. This model of provision will result in market failure – if local authorities or public bodies are suffering reduced budgets and staff they will be unable to deliver services which private providers cannot profitably operate.

  4. Richard Manns says:

    @ Michael Fitchett

    Cameron did not invent it, but he did bring it back; I’ll leave political historians to judge “how much” he, specifically, brought it back. Thatcher saw Militant-controlled Liverpool and was repulsed by localism, for example, although I’m not sure she was ever a fan. 200 years ago, Britain was a great exponent of “laissez-faire” politics, with its good and with its evil, as can be seen in Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.”

    Conversely, total state control of national production is posited as far back as the Minoan civilisation.

  5. Jess Steele says:

    Absolutely right Cameron didn’t invent it and doubly right that Labour mustn’t reject it as if it’s owned by the Tories (or it will be). The development trust movement – independent community-led organisations focused on neighbourhoods and social justice – has a long history and an impressive geographic spread across the UK and, indeed, the world. We think the important thing is COLLECTIVE social action at local level, joined up to create solidarity and mutual support, so that locally-owned organisations can get on with creating wealth locally and keeping it there. This is so different from contracting out the welfare state to massive ‘prime’ contractors whose primary purpose is shareholder value. Labour (or anyone with any sense) should come down firmly on the side of socially purposeful organisations and drive a wedge into the Tory version which blurs ‘the private and voluntary sector’ together as if they are all the same.

  6. Mike Homfray says:

    The point is that this initiative is being introduced purely to hide the effect of cuts

    Labour has always supported the voluntary sector generously.
    Many people already volunteer

    But the idea that there is a huge number of willing volunteers out there wanting to give their time is a myth
    Similarly, the view that people are just jumping at the bit to run services, when so many of those services are under threat….localism is just the latest fad and it will pass by

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