Cameron's 'empowerment' scam

Can the government's Big Society idea foster genuine community empowerment, or is it merely a smokescreen for cutting back the size of the state? OurKingdom authors provide top debate and analysis of the Coalition's plans for a renewal of civic life.
Anna Coote
16 November 2010

Anna Coote, head of social policy at nef (the new economics foundation), questions the 'Big Society''s ability to deliver on its promises of empowerment. Her piece follows the recent publication of nef report 'Cutting it; the 'Big Society' and the new austerity'.

The Cameroons insist that their ideas for a ‘Big Society’ pre-date the collapse of global financial systems. But there is no escaping the serendipity of having such a scheme up one’s sleeve when setting about the public deficit with one’s chainsaw.

Together, the cuts and the ‘Big Society’ represent an historic shift of responsibility away from democratic government to individuals and families, and away from public service to self-help, mutual aid, charity, philanthropy, local enterprise and big business. It is a bid to replace paid with unpaid labour on a massive scale. If implemented as intended, it marks the end of the post-war welfare settlement.

David Cameron has ambitions to be the least powerful prime minister of the century, according to progressive Tory Jonty Olliffe-Cooper. Central government, we’re told, is giving away power on an unprecedented scale – lobbing it out to the multitudes, far and fast. Here, citizens, take this power: we don’t want it any more.

There’s no blueprint or master plan, apparently, because the government trusts the people to take decisions for themselves. Protagonists admit there will be rough edges and snags, the inevitably messy results of an experiment that Cameron’s strategist Steve Hilton has described as ‘audacious to the point of recklessness – nobody knows if it can be done’. The aim, says Hilton, is ‘nothing less than to wean this country off its apparently unbreakable dependency upon the state, centralism, welfare, and rule from Whitehall: the corrosive habits of half a century.’

Few would deny that our 60-year-old welfare system is due for an overhaul. But only a government stuffed with millionaires and public school alumni would approach reform with such utter confidence and cool unconcern for how the messy results of its recklessness will affect the lower orders. Why should it matter if government no longer runs the welfare state when power that derives from wealth, class and intimacy with the upper echelons of the business world so mightily outweighs any that might be divested from Whitehall?

The ‘Big Society’ narrative is loud about empowerment and noiseless on equality. We don’t all have the same capacity to participate in local activities. It depends on what we know, how much money we have, where we live, how confident and experienced we are, and how close we are to people and places where things get done.

If private and voluntary organisations are to fill the gaps left by a retreating state, it matters a lot how they behave and who they include. They all have boundaries – variously determined by kinship, law, status, geography, ethnicity, religion - which include some and exclude others. There is nothing in the plans for a Big Society to make sure that larger and more powerful organisations don’t exclude those who need help most, or monopolise the action, or flourish at the expense of others.

Then there’s the question of time. Replacing paid with unpaid labour means people using more of their ‘spare’ time – of which some have much more than others. If you are a low-paid worker with big family responsibilities, how will you have time to participate in the ‘Big Society’?

Capacity, access and time are all unequally distributed. According to the NCVO, people who take part in voluntary local activities are typically white, older and middle-class. The shift from state to civil society will intensify this pattern. Those who can, will. Those who can’t, won’t. Those who don’t won’t be empowered at all.

Meanwhile, poor neighbourhoods, which already rely most heavily on public employment, benefits and services, will suffer most from the impact of the cuts. Women, who make up two-thirds of public sector employees, will take the hardest hit. People without jobs will face tighter and more punitive benefits rules and drastically pared-down public services. There will be more polarisation between and within neighbourhoods as the poorest are put to flight in search of affordable accommodation.

These are the conditions in which the ‘Big Society’ is supposed to take root and flourish. Yet the small charities and community groups that are supposed to be its life and soul are already painfully squeezed as council grants and contracts are scaled back. Now they are expected to step in and vastly increase their activities, to help the rising numbers of poor, jobless, insecure and unsupported individuals and families.

Meanwhile, the big corporates are limbering up. They’ve plenty of experience in winning big state contracts and Sir Philip Green has famously advised government to save money through more centralised, large-scale purchasing.

The ‘Big Society’ enables and justifies a parallel plan for a much smaller state. None of us want a big, centralised, overbearing state that makes us feel remote, small and dependent. But we do want a democratic state that is strong enough – strategic enough - to make sure that resources are fairly distributed, human rights protected, essential services delivered, and the poor and powerless protected against the rich and strong.

There will be plenty of opportunities for things to go awry – with potentially disastrous consequences. When that happens, who will be accountable? Without clear lines of accountability, only those who can shout loudest or whip up the most colourful media outrage will have their voices heard.

In our report, Cutting It; the ‘Big Society’ and the new austerity, nef (the new economics foundation) sets out ideas for making the best of the ‘Big Society’. We suggest it needs some clear goals that are about ends, not means. What’s the point of shrinking the state and shifting responsibility to ‘civil society’? We suggest the goals should be social justice and well-being for all. To achieve these, there must be measures to make sure everyone can participate and benefit. We recommend phasing in a shorter working week to help distribute paid and unpaid time more evenly across the population, introducing co-production as the standard way of planning and delivering services, and building a clear framework of accountability.

However, none of this is sustainable, we argue, without an enduring commitment to substantial public investment. There can be no ‘empowerment’ without social justice and a fair distribution of resources. The ‘Big Society’ may be the social policy that makes the government’s economic policy seem possible in political terms, but the public spending cuts will make the best ideals of the ‘Big Society’ impossible to realise.

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