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 

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder