‘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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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University