‘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?

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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.