Echoes of Tony Blair in Cameron’s “big society”, but . . .

. . . at least he has a Big Idea and his pet philosophy is to be turned into action plans for Whiteh

After two months of doom and gloom from the coalition, David Cameron has today tried to give voters something to smile about. His invitation to join the government of Britain that he used during the election campaign is now to be turned into a programme of action, or structural reform plans, for every Whitehall department.

Cameron doesn't like systems of bureaucratic accountability, nor targets, nor performance indicators. So instead of targets, his structural reform plans will include specific deadlines for specific action. Sounds like a target to me!

I wonder what happens when a deadline for action doesn't get met? Apparently, these will bring democratic accountability and create the structures that put people in charge. So if the government fails to meet its specific deadlines, we can vote it out? Doesn't sound so radical when you put it like that.

Maybe senior civil servants will be sacked? Without performance indicators, maybe pigs will fly.

Cameron's got a big idea and he's proud of it. Having outlined plans to cut back the state in the name of deficit reduction, he now sees the space for the "big society" to blossom. Today he has shown that his pre-election "heir to Blair" positioning is here to stay, as he argues in favour of competition between organisations providing public services because it's the richest who can opt out while the poorest have to take what they are given. Choice is back.

Cameron even lays claim to Blair's record, saying that the academies are transforming education results and foundation hospitals are bringing the very best care to the people who need it most. Yet this is the reform agenda that Ed Balls has said led to the impression that Labour was against hard-working public servants. Lest we forget Blair's forces of conservatism speech and the wreckers of reform briefings.

More importantly, Cameron's call for more independence and more freedom as an automatic mechanism for raising standards across the board rewrites the history of Labour's second term, a time when public spending and capital investment were rising year on year. New Labour at its best was always a combination of investment and reform. Building Schools for the Future was an investment programme that complemented academy freedoms and both were used by the education department to negotiate change with local authorities.

The big political challenge during deficit reduction is to articulate a credible reform agenda that can operate in an age of austerity. Today, Cameron didn't produce a list of private and third-sector suppliers who have agreed to provide public services on a payment-by-results basis. That was the test set for Blair when he announced the academies programme.

And perhaps most importantly, if Cameron is going to design the necessity of provider failure in to his competitive system, what happens to the poor -- who can't opt out -- when the services they rely on inevitably fail?

This agenda is as important for Labour's leadership candidates to get to grips with as the issue of deficit reduction, or electoral reform. These three debates look like they will define politics over the next year. And in an age of new politics, Labour's new leader will need something new to say about how New Labour has moved on.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Just face it, being a parent will never be cool

Traditional parenting terms are being rejected in favour of trendier versions, but it doesn't change the grunt-like nature of the work.

My children call me various things. Mummy. Mum. Poo-Head. One thing they have never called me is mama. This is only to be expected, for I am not cool.

Last year Elisa Strauss reported on the rise of white, middle-class mothers in the US using the term “mama” as “an identity marker, a phrase of distinction, and a way to label the self and designate the group.” Mamas aren’t like mummies or mums (or indeed poo-heads). They’re hip. They’re modern. They’re out there “widen[ing] the horizons of ‘mother,’ without giving up on a mother identity altogether.” And now it’s the turn of the dads.

According to the Daily Beast, the hipster fathers of Brooklyn are asking their children to refer to them as papa. According to one of those interviewed, Justin Underwood, the word “dad” is simply too “bland and drab”:

“There’s no excitement to it, and I feel like the word papa nowadays has so many meanings. We live in an age when fathers are more in touch with their feminine sides and are all right with playing dress-up and putting on makeup with their daughters.”

Underwood describes “dad” as antiquated, whereas “papa” is an “open-minded, liberal term, like dad with a twist” (but evidently not a twist so far that one might consider putting on makeup with one’s sons).

Each to their own, I suppose. Personally I always associate the word “papa” with “Smurf” or “Lazarou.” It does not sound particularly hip to me. Similarly “mama” is a word I cannot hear without thinking of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, hence never without a follow-up “ooo-oo-oo-ooh!” Then again, as a mummy I probably have no idea what I am talking about. If other people think these words are trendy, no doubt they are.

Nonetheless, I am dubious about the potential of such words to transform parenting relationships and identities. In 1975’s Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes how she used to look at her own mother and think “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” It is, I think, a common sentiment. Rejecting mummy or daddy as an identity, if not as an individual, can feel much the same as rejecting the politics that surrounds gender and parenting. The papas interviewed by The Daily Beast are self-styled feminists, whose hands-on parenting style they wish to differentiate from that of their own fathers. But does a change of title really do that? And even if it does, isn’t this a rather individualistic approach to social change?

There is a part of me that can’t help wondering whether the growing popularity of mama and papa amongst privileged social groups reflects a current preference for changing titles rather than social realities, especially as far as gendered labour is concerned. When I’m changing a nappy, it doesn’t matter at all whether I’m known as Mummy, Mama or God Almighty. I’m still up to my elbows in shit (yes, my baby son is that prolific).

The desire to be known as Papa or Mama lays bare the delusions of new parents. It doesn’t even matter if these titles are cool now. They won’t be soon enough because they’ll be associated with people who do parenting. Because like it or not, parenting is not an identity. It is not something you are, but a position you occupy and a job you do.

I once considered not being called mummy. My partner and I did, briefly, look at the “just get your children to call you by your actual name” approach. On paper it seemed to make sense. If to my sons I am Victoria rather than mummy, then surely they’ll see me as an individual, right? Ha. In practice it felt cold, as though I was trying to set some kind of arbitrary distance between us. And perhaps, as far as my sons are concerned, I shouldn’t be just another person. It is my fault they came into this vale of tears. I owe them, if not anyone else, some degree of non-personhood, a willingness to do things for them that I would not do for others. What I am to them – mummy, mum, mama, whatever one calls it – is not a thing that can be rebranded. It will never be cool because the grunt work of caring never is.

It is not that I do not think we need to change the way in which we parent, but this cannot be achieved by hipster trendsetting alone. Changing how we parent involves changing our most fundamental assumptions about what care work is and how we value the people who do it. And this is change that needs to include all people, even those who go by the old-fashioned titles of mum and dad.

Ultimately, any attempt to remarket parenting as a cool identity smacks of that desperate craving for reinvention that having children instils in a person. The moment you have children you have bumped yourself up the generational ladder. You are no longer the end of your family line. You are – god forbid – at risk of turning into your own parents, the ones who fuck you up, no matter what they do. But you, too, will fuck them up, regardless of whether you do it under the name of daddy, dad or papa. Accept it. Move on (also, you are mortal. Get over it).

Parenting will never be cool. Indeed, humanity will never be cool. We’re all going to get older, more decrepit, closer to death. This is true regardless of whether you do or don’t have kids – but if you do you will always have younger people on hand to remind you of this miserable fact.

Your children might, if you are lucky, grow to respect you, but as far as they are concerned you are the past.  No amount of rebranding is going to solve that. This doesn’t mean we can’t change the way we parent. But as with so much else where gender is concerned, it’s a matter for boring old deeds, not fashionable words.

 

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.