The Left and the Big Society VI: Rachael Maskell of Unite

How will the left respond to the clear challenge of the Conservatives' Big Society project? In the latest in our series, Rachael Maskell, of Unite, argues that the Big Society idea is simply a smoke-screen for the privatisation of public services.
Rachael Maskell
27 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 StrawMatthew Taylor and Tessa Jowell. Today, we hear fro Rachael Maskell of the Unite union. 

Firstly, what is your attitude towards Cameron's plans to promote community banking, through the Big Society Bank? Do you expect that co-operatives and mutuals will play a significant role in the Big Society as it rolls out? 

It is essential to have a banking system that understands the challenges of the sector, that can provide organisations with capital to help the sector build capacity and that can be supportive when organisations get into difficulty.

Many organisation have very little in reserves and are therefore very vulnerable at this time. Ensuring that there are mechanisms in place to provide stability for the sector is therefore crucial. Unite has been a strong supporter of co-operatives and mutuals, and believes that they have an important role to play in civil society.

Unite are also clear that co-operatives, mutuals and social enterprises should not be used for replacing existing state provision since this is not about transforming services but creating a market in which the private sector, which can undercut all on costs, will play a major role. Cuts in costs mean cuts in quality, as the use of private cleaning contracts in the NHS remind us.

As a union, we constantly bear witness to the damage that the market is doing through the race to the bottom in quality of standards and in the terms and conditions of staff. Service users are the ones that ultimately lose out.

Unite believes that the dramatic cuts implemented and proposed will hurt the most disadvantaged in this country. Do you think that there are members of the Coalition that genuinely believe that rolling back the state in this manner will reduce inequality? 

Not just Unite, but leading economists and sociologists have stated that the cuts will create greater inequality across society. This was evidenced in the first stage of the Coalition's policy for addressing the deficit through the 'austerity budget'. There are two issues here. 

First, there are two economic strategies: one is to cut, and experts say that this will put the economy back into recession since there will be less liquidity to help grow the economy; the second is to invest in jobs and growth, which will bring gradual recovery and maintain employment at the same time. 

The second issue is ideological and this is about reducing the size of the state. Over time, the state took over many services once provided by charities to ensure universal cover. During the last Conservative administration there were attempts to fragment the state, for example, by selling off utilities.

The result of these decisions was that a postcode lottery was created and many could not access services. We need only think of pensioner fuel poverty to realise the damage this caused to some of the poorest in our society. I do not know what the Coalition genuinely believes, however history demonstrates that their economic and social policies are deeply regressive and will be of greatest detriment to the worst off in our society.

Do you feel that the core idea presented as behind the Big Society - that of handing people control over their own communities - could be wrested from Cameron and reclaimed by the left? What part could Unite play in influencing the direction of the Big Society?  

Unite believes that the Big Society is a smoke-screen to hand civil society and state services over to the market, and will certainly not engage all people in decision-making about their locality. I think we need only look at the Coalition's plans for Free Schools, to understand that there is virtually no appetite for the public taking over the running of local services. Unite will be arguing that at a time when services are in great demand, a strengthened state and a strengthened charities sector should work together, not in competition, to ensure that the best services are available to all.  

Finally, the Big Society is approaching communities from a geographical stance, emphasising traditional family units and neighbourliness. Do you feel that this approach is out of touch with the reality of work and support networks in a fluid, mobile and digital society?  

We do live in a totally connected society which reaches far beyond the local street, and we cannot build for the future without incorporating the technical advances that have been made. However, trade unions have been built through relationships of colleagues standing up for one another in the community of the workplace, and ensuring that no-one is picked off or falls through the gaps. Perhaps the government should look to the trade unions, the largest movement of people in Britain as its model for the Big Society.

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