Dave’s Dodo: Thoughts On The Big Society

Big Society (Societus Crassus)

Observing the various relaunches of David Cameron’s cherished ‘policy’, the Big Society, it’s unsurprising that it never quite seems to get off the ground. Like the Dodo, that ungainly, ill-fated cousin of the pigeon, it does not possess the power of flight. Everyone knows what happened to Didus Ineptus.

Societus Crassus, Mr Cameron’s very own squawking, flightless bird, seems to be as clumsy as the Dodo. Cameron said today ‘People are enthusiastic if they are given the opportunity. People like the idea.’

Do they? Cameron might claim as much in defending the idea, existing as it does as a cover for ideological cuts. But is the ‘passion’ he spoke of today shared by a waiting nation? Not according to a Sky News poll, which showed that 78% of viewers would not volunteer themselves, compared to 22% who would.

A Sunday Mirror poll yesterday showed 41 per cent of people think the Big Society is a cover for cuts – against 21 per cent who back the idea.

Cameron today claimed his Big Society ‘will not make us popular. In fact it will make us unpopular. It will make me unpopular. I recognise that is my duty. We have to do this for the good of the country.’

An interesting, if Dodo-ish, attitude. But can a policy that relies on mass volunteering work without the required mass of volunteers? Can public services and voluntary sector organisations, currently being dismembered by Cameron’s government, reassemble the hacked up pieces of themselves and carry on?

The opportunity to volunteer, to make a difference and contribute to the good causes has existed ever since human beings first had spare time. Look, for example, at the honours list each time it comes out and there are hundreds of people who have done good work in their community. But they have never before been expected to take on the burden of running significant services, day in and day out.

They do what they do because they have spare time to do it. But expect them to take on the running of, for example, a local library, and that could be a back-breaking pressure for many. Is it a fair or realistic expectation? Does the Big Society give anyone any choice in the matter? If local services will disappear unless people volunteer, is it volunteering? Is it obligation? Is it what Cameron calls ‘responsibility’ or ‘duty’? Or is it an open-ended community sentence  for people who haven’t done anything wrong?

David Cameron is placing  a romantic 18th and 19th Century notion of philanthropy, where big benefactors endowed hospitals, orphanages, almshouses or free public libraries (which were then run by paid staff), up against the reality of public services in the 21st Century (with all the expectations of high quality that are placed on them, rightly, by modern users).

It unsettles me, given Britain’s unhappy recent history with bankers, that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have now turned to large financial institutions (Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland) to help the Big Society fly. Investment will now take the form of loans to ‘social enterprises’ from the Big Society Bank. Loans, not grants. And the banks, as banks do, will inevitably want to see some return on their £200 million investment.

In addition, £100 million has been earmarked from dormant bank accounts. Ah, those dormant bank accounts. I’ve lost count of the number of times dormant bank accounts have been earmarked for various purposes in recent years. I’m surprised there’s anything left in them.

That initial pot of £300 million is around 3.5 times what Lambeth, one borough among many, is being forced to cut by government over the next three years. I presume it’s intended as seed money to encourage others to invest, which leads me to wonder whether the Big Society Bank, and the Big Society, are intended as stealth mechanisms for wholesale privatisation of public services. Where publicly run services, weakened by cuts, are being set up to fail by Cameron, Clegg and Co, private enterprise will be lined up to pick over what is left in the debris.

In Lambeth we are taking a different approach, advancing plans to become a co-operative council. We are driven, not by commercial imperative, but by co-operative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy and equality, equity and solidarity. We recognise that to protect public services we must take a democratic, mutual approach with the public we serve. So, as examples, the ambition is that youth services will be run by community-led commissioning that allows very local decision making on the best way to provide services, library services may be placed in a trust (or trusts) owned by the community, and schools encouraged to group into co-operative trusts, sharing resources to benefit children.

Lambeth Council is not abandoning services. We are working with residents to provide them. The response from the community has been encouraging. Unlike Cameron’s Big Society, our co-op council is ready to fly.

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