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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.