A rather imposing coalition has committed itself to derailing David Cameron’s flagship policy: the Big Society. Public sector unions, many local authorities and some Lib Dem Ministers have joined with figures from the Right of his own Party and leaders of some charities to rouse a hostile chorus of dissent. They all have their own motives for wanting to rubbish the Big Society, not least as a stick with which to beat the Prime Minister. I believe that they are wrong to do so.
Ed Balls – who has a passion for the Big State and for the imposition of a centralist agenda on the minutiae of the lives of families, schools and communities calls it “the Big Con”. But he needs to disentangle his opposition to specific Government policies – and cuts in public expenditure – from what is fast becoming purely partisan opposition to the policy.
I recently had the chance to question David Cameron directly about the inevitable negative impact of cuts and rises in VAT on the budgets of charities, and I warned that this risked creating a backlash against the Big Society. By way of example, I subsequently sent him details of how the recent increase in VAT has hit the Sue Ryder Foundation, adding millions to their overheads. The emasculation of charities can hardly be the objective of the Government, so, in building the Big Society, they need to be particularly careful of The Law of Unintended Consequences.
The Government is clearly taking a whole host of unpopular decisions in its first year in office, hoping that it will have rebalanced the economy and created traction for reform across the civil service estate by the time of the next General Election. But there’s an old saying, and it’s a true and relevant one here: “less haste, more speed.”
Too many rushed, ill-thought through measures – ranging from the abolition of the National Coroner’s Service to the radical reduction in Sure Start provision – and you risk alienating people whose instincts are to support the Government, forcing them in to the arms of the unreconstructed rent-a-mobs of the Workers Revolutionary or Socialist Workers Parties. The success of the Big Society as a policy will, to no small extent, depend on maintaining the good will of its supporters.
There is rarely a right time in politics to enunciate your core values or to make a stand for your central beliefs. It’s hard to imagine a worse time than one of deep economic recession and austerity. But the Prime Minister deserves a fair hearing for what he has described as his “mission in politics”; and we at least owe him the courtesy of disentangling what the Big Society is and what it is not.
We should also be wary of unthinkingly siding with those who are ideologically opposed to anything the Government says or does, simply because it is the Government which says it.
When questioned, David Cameron will remind you that Big Society is not a cross between Dad’s Army and the Women’s Institute; not a State sponsored Boy Scout’s Bob-A-Job Week or a Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme; not an extension of Community Service – although heaven knows, only in this country would an admirable concept such as community service be turned into a punishment dispensed by the courts.
At its heart Big Society is about enablement and giving each of us more control over our own lives. It’s about binding the Leviathan which the State so easily becomes. It’s about localism and subsidiarity – a word which has its modern origins and fullest exposition in Catholic Social Teaching – who believed that decisions are best taken at the level closest to where people are. And, yes, it’s also about volunteering and charitable and philanthropic endeavour; about encouraging altruism and generosity and reducing a culture of dependency.
In seeking to re-launch the concept of Big Society the Prime Minister announced a “social investment strategy” – aimed at encouraging people to put their own money into social projects. “Big Society ISAs”, as they have been christened, would allow people to fund community projects for a tax free return.
When David Cameron says he wants people to take more control of their own communities and take greater responsibility for the running of public services, I am entirely with him. When he says that a “Social Stock Exchange” will allow people to buy a stake in projects which bid for contracts providing public services – and then get a return if the project adds value for public money through the incentive of “payments by results” – I am all ears.
And I want to hear more about the Big Society Bank which will co-fund charitable projects and provide start-up capital alongside private investors. I echo his sentiments when he says “I don’t want the story of this Government to be just an economic recovery. I want it to be a social recovery too.”
Over thirty years ago, while Chairman of the Housing Committee in Liverpool, I helped launch housing co-operatives and self-build projects and championed the “demunicipalisation of the municipal empire”; an empire whose tentacles crept into the lives of every neighbourhood and every home, even determining the colour of paint with which you could paint your own front door. This sort of thing stifles local ingenuity: One of the most important and successful co-operative projects, pioneered by the Eldonian Co-operative and based in the parish of Our Lady Eldon street, met vicious hostility from the Liverpool Local Authority every step of the way. I would hate to see history repeat itself.
Local Authorities – paying salaries to their Chief Executives of up to almost £300,000 p.a. – need to be particularly careful before pulling the plug on community based projects which they say they can no longer afford, especially if they can continue to find funds for inflated salaries (some nearly twice that of the Prime Minister).
I have always been for the return of power to communities and for the strengthening of families and communities. So let’s be clear about what Big Society is and what it isn’t.
The policy needs to be considered on its own merits – which by and large stand the test – and not become a cover for an ideologically driven agenda aimed at attacking the Prime Minister and the Government.