The Left and the Big Society VII: Hilary Wainwright of Red Pepper

In this latest interview in our Big Society Challenge series, Hilary Wainwright, co-editor of Red Pepper, contrasts the coalition's Big Society with ideas of self-organisation that took root in the '60s and '70s. She advocates an unofficial "big society" where communities occupy Big Society rhetoric, and make use of the resources handed down to resist the cuts and strengthen local democracy.

In this latest interview in our Big Society Challenge series, Hilary Wainwright, co-editor of Red Pepper, contrasts the coalition's Big Society with ideas of self-organisation that took root in the '60s and '70s. She advocates an unofficial "big society" where communities occupy Big Society rhetoric and make use of the resources handed down to resist the cuts and strengthen local democracy.

Hilary Wainwright is co-editor of Red Pepper, author of 'Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy', and Research Fellow of both the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam, and the International Centre for Participation Studies, Bradford University.

How far do you agree with Cameron’s presentation of the Big Society as radically new, and to what extent are ideas around the Big Society rooted in Britain’s political history?

The idea of self-organisation and challenging the paternalist character of the state has a long history in our contemporary times. It goes back to the movements of the 60s and 70s, which combined a challenge to authority with a wider social critique including a commitment to the redistribution of power and wealth. Those left libertarian traditions critiqued both the state and the corporate-dominated market. Regarding the state, they made a key distinction between public resources, which they defended and wished to see expand, and how these resources were administered, which they tried to transform and to democratise. These movements, the first products of mass education, said: hang on a minute, we want a say in how public money, our money, is spent, and how public institutions, like universities and the welfare state, are run .

From this movement emerged political experiments like the GLC in the 1980's. This was not about cutting the state, but changing the state’s relationship with civil society. We saw the market not as a power-free zone but as an exceedingly hierarchical, authoritarian and divisive force, even more unaccountable, in its own way, than the state. One example of the GLC’s work is Coin Street, near Waterloo, now a thriving community of small businesses and community groups.  It required all the GLC’s power – the power of legislation and money - to take over the land that was about to be bought by big property speculators. The community was well organised and knew what it wanted, and the GLC used it's specific powers as a state institution to support this community to realize its plans. The Conservatives recognized the popularity of this new openness of a radical, redistributive and interventionist state as a real threat, that couldn't be attacked according to the old populist caricatures of the bureaucratic state. Indeed, Norman Tebbit remarked of the GLC on the eve of its abolition: ‘This is modern socialism and we will kill it.’  These traditions around popular control of the state are incredibly important, and I think that Ed Miliband now needs to draw on them.

Do you agree with the accusation that Cameron and his followers, in presenting the Big Society, are concealing their ultimate ideological agenda from the public?

I wouldn’t say that the Big Society has a hidden agenda. Cameron is pretty clear that the Big Society is about minimising the state and effectively strengthening the market. However, there is a lot of dishonesty in Cameron’s speeches. Trade unions are constantly aligned with big interests. The unions can be incredibly bureaucratic, but they are fundamentally democratic bodies and if they open up, including to their members, as citizens and workers, they can be powerful allies for social change. The Conservatives are also not being honest about the nature of the market, for example by portraying business as made up of small businesses that are compatible with the interests of communities and blanking out the realities of corporate power.

The Big Society is linked to Cameron’s aims to dismantle the redistributive state. In so doing, he is destroying the state’s ability to act against corporations and to control the banks. He is effectively seeking to destroy public provision as it stands in favour of a marketization of public services, an exceedingly oligopolistic market that will squeeze out or dominate small efforts at self-help and charity. If you look at the reality of the charitable sector, big, corporate style charities are increasingly taking over, along with charities actually connected to corporations.

Do you feel that the left can reclaim ideas of community action, social cohesion, and power to the people from the rhetoric around the Big Society, and in doing so influence its direction?

Big Society rhetoric is already being 'occupied'. People are getting organized because they’re angry. Maybe this challenge will help community organizations develop a sense of their own power, see themselves as an interconnected whole, and form alliances with trade unions and local authorities. What’s happening to local government is outrageous; they’ve been given greater powers but fewer resources; it’s time they stood up for themselves. They are the representatives of the people, and should be working with the people to resist these cuts.

Outside of the official government debate, the Big Society idea has prompted much soul-searching amongst political, civil and community bodies around the role and organization of civil society.  What do you see as the practical outcomes, or benefits, of this debate?

The debate to watch and learn from is the debate that’s happening in communities, across the country. Already, the official Big Society is being challenged. It’s not been able to get many of its official meetings off the ground. People are opinionated and organized. They already are the Big Society. That’s the message from many people: We are the Big Society; who are you? The official Big Society could easily stumble. People will occupy the resources and use them as they see fit, which might well be to challenge the cuts and strengthen local government as a democratic body. It will be determined out there. I don’t see much life in the official Big Society.

About the author

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and former Co-Editor of OurKingdom.