The myth of the “big society”

The public don’t want to get involved. Do you blame them?

James and I have a column in the mag tomorrow in which we critically analyse David Cameron's "big society" big idea.

In the meantime, a couple of related things.

To what extent do people want to be part of this "big society" and accept the Tory invitation to "join" the government? Gary Gibbon of Channel 4 News asked Cameron where the evidence is that people want to be "prised away from the telly" in order to run public services or their local communities. The Tory leader said he "profoundly" believed that people want to be more involved.

Really? This poll from Ipsos-MORI asked voters if they wanted more involvement in the provision of local public services. Only one in 20 wanted "involvement", whereas one in four wanted "more of a say" and half of them only wanted "more information". (Incidentally, the poll also showed that less than a quarter of the public agreed with the statement: "There is a real need to cut spending on public services in order to pay off the very high national debt we now have.")

Another, earlier poll from the same company asked voters to what extent, if at all, they would like to be involved in "decision-making" in their local communities, to which 50 per cent responded "not very" or "not at all". And when asked about being "involved" in the running of the country as a whole, the percentage of "uninteresteds" increased to 55 per cent.

People seem to opt for quality over control. My colleague Tom Calvocoressi makes an interesting analogy between the "DIY government" being proposed by the Tories and the do-it-yourself checkout procedures on offer from Tesco self-service tills.

In a busy superstore, with long lines for the checkout, self-service seems like a great idea to start with, supposedly speeding up your progress and handing power and responsibility to you, the customer. But then the barcode won't swipe, "approval is needed" for your carton of milk, the bags have run out and the whole procedure ends up taking you even longer than queuing for a cashier.

Ultimately you conclude that it's quite nice having someone who is paid and trained to do the job for you. We have other things to be getting on with.

Or, as Jackie Ashley put it in the Guardian yesterday, "Perhaps the biggest problem is that the politicians dreaming up these plans are different from the rest of us. After all, they are quite happy to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week working at politics. The rest of the country have a life."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.