David Cameron makes a speech on the Big Society to social entrepreneurs at Somerset House on February 14, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Only Labour can build the Big Society

Labour knows the state isn’t perfect. But the coalition is giving power to big corporations, not to people. 

A year until the general election and the words you rarely hear the Conservatives utter are "Big Society". That agenda, which promised so much to communities in Britain, is dead in the water.

Perhaps its intentions were good. But what sounded like empowerment has ended in despair for too many. Because the Big Society ignored the deep inequalities in our country and left some to sink while a few others swim. Last year, think tank Civil Exchange found that Big Society policies had mainly benefited a privileged few living in wealthy areas, leaving the rest of us behind. And for all its talk about opening up government to the voluntary sector and community groups, the coalition has handed public sector contracts to the same big private companies. According to Cabinet Office figures, of the £40bn central government spend on external contracts in 2012/13, £10bn was with the same 40 companies, and £4.3bn of that was with Serco, G4S, Capita and Atos. This government is stripping back the state and giving power to big corporations not to people.

Conservatives believe the state can only be a hindrance to society. That all it has to do is get out of the way for people and communities to flourish. They set civil society and government against one another.  They were wrong. The state and communities aren't in competition. They do fundamentally different things. It is when they work together that they can transform people’s lives for the better. Government needs to share power with communities instead of imposing change on them or just as bad, leaving them to fend for themselves.

Labour knows the state isn’t perfect. Ed Miliband has made it clear the next Labour government will tackle unaccountable power in the public sector as well as the private. Too often our experiences of government are top-down, one size fits all. Too often we come out of an encounter with the state feeling powerless and dehumanised. Too much in our society is changing for public services to stand still. All of the biggest social challenges we face, from the shift online to our ageing population, from the growth in loneliness to the loss of our sense of belonging, are too complex to tackle without the active engagement of individuals and communities.  It is time that the doctors, patients, parents, pupils and teachers combined their knowledge and experience and worked in partnership with each other. But to do that we must start with sharing power more equally.

To start with, we need to put our money where our mouths are. Labour will transfer £20bn of spending from Whitehall to city regions across the UK. Communities will have a say in how money is spent in their area, define their own problems, and find their own solutions and work together to set the agenda. Local authorities across Britain have shown their mettle, fighting to preserve services in the face of huge budget cuts, innovating to ensure communities don’t pay too high a price for a recession they didn’t cause. We will trust local people and local authorities to make good decisions.

We’ll put charities and community groups at the heart of what we do. Not by asking them to pick up the pieces of government cuts, but by levelling the playing field so that they can win government contracts. We’ll end the race to the bottom, where the voluntary sector is forced to drive down prices at all costs, even if it means a worse service for communities. We’ll listen and learn from individuals and communities and shape government around them.

That shift in how we do politics has already begun in our own party. Colleagues like Angela Eagle have transformed the national policy making process, not just with the Your Britain website, but with seminars and events around the country. Arnie Graf has re-awakened Labour's traditions of community organising opening us up to people's energy and participation. And Labour’s policy review continues to draw on the talents and ideas of people who want the reshape the country after the next election. These are small but vital steps in bringing about the transformation we need to see.

Across the country, people want to define their own problems and be part of their own solutions. But they also want a government that will fight for them, that will level the playing field so that they have a fair shot. You can’t promise people power in their communities and not power in the economy. The Big Society agenda didn’t understand this, but Labour does.

Jon Cruddas is Labour's Policy Review Co-Ordinator; Lisa Nandy is shadow minister for civil society 

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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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