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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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