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