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?