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The Left and the Big Society V: Tessa Jowell

How will the left respond to the clear challenge of the Conservatives' Big Society project? Tessa Jowell MP, former Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, gives her view.
Tessa Jowell
24 September 2010

How will the left respond to the clear challenge of the Conservatives' Big Society project? Niki Seth Smith is asking the leading people and institutions on the left how they view the idea, as part of OK's debate on the Challenge of the Big Society. We have heard from Sunder KatwalaNeal Lawson, Will Straw and Matthew Taylor. Today, Tessa Jowell MP, former Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, gives her view. 

It would seem that the Coalition is proposing its own models for community banking, most notably through its idea for the Big Society Bank. Do you think the Coalition can be persuaded to fully recognise, and continue supporting, the existing co-ops and mutuals that have been so successful in recent years? 

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So far we have seen an awful lack of ambition from the Coalition around community banking. The only specific policy that they have in this area, the Big Society bank, is simply a rebranding of Labour’s plans for a social investment wholesale bank to provide more capital. If they manage to provide £300 million investment, that will be welcome, but will still fall far short of what’s required when you consider the demands that the Coalition are looking to make on community organisations.

Labour’s manifesto proposals for community banking may not have grabbed the headlines in the same way as Cameron’s Big Society, but they were much more ambitious - the remutualisation of Northern Rock; the creation of a People’s Bank to bring banking services to communities across the country through the Post Office; and a community banking levy to provide a step-change in funding for credit unions allowing them to fund more services, including normal banking services. This is a much more radical and ambitious programme than what Cameron is proposing.
 

In a recent report, the Young Foundation proposes that where economic wealth had improved under Labour, social wealth had not seen great advancements. It goes on to say that research has found that the quality of relationships matters more than income or consumption. Do you agree with these claims, and how do you see Labour fostering a sense of empowerment in our communities and influencing the direction of the Big Society?

Some of the rhetoric around the Big Society fits in with our idea of what a good society should look like. Communities should feel and be more powerful, and play an instrumental part in the decisions that affect their lives. Power can and should be devolved to the lowest possible level, and give individuals a real say over the organisations that play such an important role in their everyday lives.

There is, however, a profound difference between our visions of how to make society more powerful. For 13 years, we used government action to mobilise our traditions of collective action, self-help and co-operation. In contrast, the Coalition’s plans for a ‘Big Society’ risk undermining the very infrastructure that gives power to local communities, because of its commitment to accelerated cuts in front line services and its ideological dedication to small government.

We funded voluntary organisations nationally - nearly doubling funding over 13 years, encouraging new mutual organisations and social enterprises, helped people take over public assets and services and launched social investment bonds.

And so Britain is a Big Society today - generous, volunteering, caring, full of social initiative and enterprise. We helped it grow - we didn't stand in the way or stand aside. This generous volunteer Britain worked with well funded public services - both were better for working together.

Cameron's vision of the Big Society appears to be focused on close-knit, traditional 'neighborhoods'. Do you agree with this approach of looking at communities geographically? Do you think that Cameron recognises the extent to which modern-day Britain harbours a range of communities outside that of the neighbourhood, enabled by the internet and a more fluid, mobile society?

The Conservatives’ vision of the Big Society is extremely limited. Not only do they ignore the important role played by government in encouraging and supporting civil society, they have a narrow vision of what voluntary organisations should be doing.

Oliver Letwin told the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in January that he does not value the campaigning role of voluntary organisations, seeing them primarily as deliverers of public services. This is an extremely narrow conception of civil society which reflects the Tories’ lack of experience and misunderstanding of the third sector. When you consider some of the largest and most popular campaigns whilst Labour was in government – Make Poverty History, gay rights campaigns, anti-smoking campaigns – these all resulted in changes in government policy.

There is most certainly a role for voluntary organisations in delivering services, but they can’t be expected to take the place of the state. At root of this misunderstanding, is the Coalition’s flawed ideological view of the state; that it crowds out economic activity and volunteering activity. As Will Straw argued, a strong civil society works in partnership with an enabling state.  When you compare the size and influence of civil society in US to Ireland, Belgium and Canada, it’s clear that the Coalition’s view is nonsense: civil society is much more active in countries with responsive and enabling states.

In your speech at the Co-op Conference, you highlighted the need to move away from a corporate culture which rewarded a get-rich-quick mentality, in order to move towards what Labour is calling the 'good society'. Do you feel that Labour is ready to commit itself to the type of radical overhaul that may be required to alter our corporate and work culture? 

What distinguishes the vision of a “good society”, from the Big Society, is that it is as much about changing the economy as changing the way the state operates.This requires us not just to rethink the relationship between the individual and the state, but our relationship with business as well.

In many ways, our vision today is the same vision that animated Kier Hardie when he founded the party all those years ago. He wanted a society in which the state’s role is to enable citizens to lead their lives as they choose, and markets that exist to serve the people, rather than the other way around. At heart, the good society is about promoting inherent human values of community, shared purpose and solidarity – and we shouldn’t shy away from that. 

 

You can read more of OurKingdom's Big Society debate here.

 

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