David Cameron’s Big Society proposal, supposed to breathe new vigour into Britain’s public life, appears to have been dead on arrival. Denounced by many Conservatives as too “wooly”, damned by others as a fig-leaf for cuts, and said to need major government spending to have any chance of working, Cameron must be wondering how to get his big idea off the ground.
Had he been sitting in a packed-out LSE lecture hall last week for the “About Time” presentation, he would have found the low-cost, practical solution to make the Big Society take off: the panel made the case for Britain adopting a 21-hour working week.
On a recent walkabout in Brixton, where I am a Councillor, I met Sandra, a single mum juggling work and child care. She was excited about a new scheme which gave local people a more direct say over youth services, but was frustrated she couldn’t be involved. “I’d put the Big into the Big Society if I could,” she said. “But when am I going to find the hours?”
If David Cameron really wants people like Sandra to “Join the Government of Britain” he needs to make more than just a call to arms. With a 21-hour week Sandra would not have to choose between work, caring for her family and being a more active part of her community: she could do all at the same time.
As well as providing the freedom for people to make a Big Society happen, a shorter working week would help create the conditions to make it viable. The demand for funded organisations to provide services on society’s behalf would reduce as the entire nation became able to both work and volunteer. Britain’s benefits bill would also be slashed by the full employment a 21-hour week would bring.
With free time making up the majority of the week, the improvements for family life, the environment and equality would also translate into lower crime, happier communities and better health. All of this would cost the state less as people could do more with their own lives. All they need to be given is the time.
To make a successful transition happen, government would need to take certain steps. One would be wealth redistribution to those with the lowest incomes, to ensure a dignified standard of living. There would also be a reduction of overall consumption; a socially agreed exchange in return for higher living standards in other areas.
Cameron would need to forge landmark agreements between employers and unions to increase the flexibility of work as hours were gradually reduced. He would also need the courage to see down those who decry these measures as utopian. They offer the best hope of bringing his promise of a Big Society to life.
Alex Holland is a Labour Councillor for Brixton Hill, Lambeth