‘Big society’ – where’s the opposition?

The Opposition needs its own big idea to combat the "big society", or it will be the end of the post

On his "hard road back to power", Ed Miliband will have to forge a powerful strategy to counteract the "big society".

The "big society" is a slippery and seductive political story. It is all things to all people, with a lot of cuddly language about empowering citizens, sharing responsibility and devolving decisions.

Beneath its seductive language, however, the "big society" aims to shift responsibility from democratic government to "civil society", and to replace paid with unpaid labour on a massive scale.

Functions that have been funded through taxes and carried out by publicly owned organisations for more than sixty years are to be transferred to charities and businesses. If implemented as intended, together with the public spending cuts, it will mark the end of the post-war welfare settlement.

The Government's narrative is strong on "empowerment" but silent on equality. Capacity, access and time are all distributed unequally across the population, according to income, wealth, class, gender, ethnicity, geography and age.

There is nothing in the plans for a "big society" to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to participate or benefit.

The small, local groups that are supposed to be the life and soul of the "big society" are already painfully squeezed as council grants and contracts are scaled back. Now, thanks to the cuts, they are expected to ratchet up their activities.

Most of us would agree that the welfare state is due for an overhaul. We need a new social settlement that is genuinely progressive. By that I mean one that will narrow inequalities, promote social mobility, give everyone, not just the better-off, more control over their lives and destinies, build a culture of solidarity, and be sustainable in the long term. The "big society" offers none of these.

A progressive alternative would start with a government that guarantees essential services for all, according to need, not the ability to pay.

The role of the state will have to shift from directly providing most services to enabling others to do so. This may sound like the current rhetoric, but a new, progressive settlement would go well beyond anything the "big society" can deliver. In a nutshell, "enabling" should mean building strong, enduring support systems for of small, locally based organisations so that they can flourish freely.

It should involve promoting inclusive participation in local decision-making and activities. And it should develop co-production (a partnership between the "providers" and "users" of services) as the standard way of getting things done -- through charities and businesses as well as what remains of the public sector.

The new settlement will have to address the social consequences of tackling climate change. In the interests of sustainability, it should replace the largely curative approach of the post-war welfare state with a determined focus on prevention, to stop needs arising, recurring or intensifying.

This will require a big shift in spending priorities, but will ultimately get better results for citizens, reduce demand for essential services and keep costs down. Can the Opposition build a distinctive, alternative vision with a robust range of policies for putting it into practice?

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt