THE BIG SOCIETY: The Cameron relaunch

So today is the big day, the official David Cameron relaunch of the Big Society.  Yesterday was the wooing of the left with his article in the Guardian.

The Big Society has been a PR disaster up to now.  The Conservative Party has done well in articulating what the Big Society is not, and what they don’t believe in – a big state, public spending, state intervention.  In other words the usual anti public sector spending and size of the state.  But what do they actually believe in?

As discussed in a previous article – the ideas behind the big society are not new, and have been articulated before at times of austerity and public sector cuts, yet David Cameron insists this is not a cover for the cuts.  But to convince the public and ultimately the electorate,  they need to put flesh on the bones of what the big society means and to actually give weight to the policy.

We have seen too often recently how policies advocated by the coalition have been ill thought out, with little intellectual weight, just look at the Forests, NHS reform, the Gove education debacle, and the woeful Merlin Project from George Osborne. (see previous article

The Big Society appears to look like another rhetoric over substance policy initiative.

The truth about the cuts is that the way the reduction in funding has been carried out cannot be considered as fair.   Criticism has been made of the Labour government putting money into poor communities via local councils and public spending.  As a result of this action some areas of the country are inevitably more dependent on public funding. This came about due to the lack of private capital investment in certain poorer areas of the country and not necessarily due to an ideological thirst to increase the state.

It was “good” to take public sector jobs to those areas because those areas needed the investment, needed jobs and it would have made economic sense to employ people in those areas as this would have been cheaper in terms of labour and capital costs.

The cuts being introduced are disproportionately weighted in the highest spending areas, in other words the poorest areas.  Therefore, the cuts will disproportionately affect poorer areas of the country.

It is not the simple argument given by the Conservative Party that public sector investment or spending is bad and private is good.  The situation is a lot more complicated, and the cuts will effect the poorest sectors of society and the most vulnerable more.

At this time, the rhetoric of the Big Society is to stigmatise those on “benefits”, attack DLA, take away services like libraries, CAB funding etc which communities rely on. The cuts will all happen, within a short 2 year period when the front loading of the cuts hit the councils.

There is no possible way the private sector, community groups or charities can take up this slack in this amount of time.  If it was over a 10-20year period,  maybe it could work, but this is not the case.

There has also been ridicule by the right wing press over how much councils rely on charities to provide services, and that many charities rely too much on public funding.  Is this a bad thing?

When talking about efficiencies, surely it is efficient to employ local grassroots organisations in bedded in communities who utilise voluntary labour to provide services.  Surely this has to be good value for money?

So councils are being criticised for being inefficient on one hand, and at the same time criticised for funding the most efficient services and the grassroots voluntary sector to boot.  The rhetoric is contradictory before even getting to the reality of the policy.

An extra £200m has been announced for the Big Society bank, yet the government cannot say exactly how it will work.  The cuts will take away between £3 billion and £5 billion from charitable organisations.  How can £200m make any dent in such a reduction in funding? ( see Pestons Picks )

Many of us, me included agree in much of the rhetoric of the Big Society.  Who wouldn’t.  But ideology of private Vs public sector is a red herring.  It is not any cuts that people object to but the way they are implemented and which communities have to pay the price.

There is also research which contradicts the very basis of the the rhetoric in that the assumption is that you get more voluntary workers with a smaller state, but evidence within Europe suggests the opposite.

There are several aspects of coalition rhetoric that the ordinary public can see to be pithy and disingenuous. “We are all in this together” , is the obvious one.  How can we be in this together when we know that those taking the big decisions come from a very privileged narrow sector of society, the banks have been let off the hook and large corporations do everything they can to avoid tax.

Like back to basics (John Major), and the third way (Tony Blair), the rhetoric of the Big Society is likely to be thrown back in David Cameron’s face in the coming years but will it also be an electoral liability?


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