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The Left and the Big Society III: Will Straw

How will the left respond to the clear challenge of the Conservatives' Big Society project? Will Straw, editor of Left Foot Forward, argues that social enterprise works best in partnership with the state, and cannot be expected to replace it.
Will Straw
22 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. Will Straw, editor of Left Foot Forward, is the third contributor in the series, following Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society and Neal Lawson of Compass.

Will Straw

How far do you agree with the accusation levelled at Cameron and his followers, that their ultimate aim in rolling out the Big Society is not to tackle inequality, but to increase freedoms within the state, in line with libertarian ideology?

The Big Society will self-evidently fail to reduce inequality. The march of progress has been one of benevolent but sporadic social enterprises being replaced by universal public services. Friendly societies' health insurance was replaced through national insurance in 1911, and then the NHS; Church schools were supplemented in the 1870 Education Act by universal provision of education for 5 to 12-year-olds; Peabody and other philanthropically financed estates absorbed gradually into council housing during the 20th century; the efforts of organisations like Toynbee Hall, where Clement Attlee cut his teeth, were replaced by Beveridge and a comprehensive welfare system. Of course, in the 21st century there’s a role for a variety of providers, but that was already happening under Labour. The Big Society is part decentralisation and part convenient excuse to cut back public services.

Even Cameron’s own Equality Minister, Lynne Featherstone, thinks there is limited scope for the Big Society in tackling poverty and inequality. Writing for Litmus - a joint print publication by Left Foot Forward, Lib Dem Voice, and Conservative Home for party conference season - Featherstone writes:

"The Big Society is undoubtedly a better idea than the nanny state — but the line between public service provision and what can be added by the Big Society is a critical one. The Coalition, in our haste to free ourselves from inappropriate shackles, must be mindful of this. So, as we delve into trying to provide sustainable routes out of poverty, it is the provision of life-changing education, routes into employment and a change in aspiration and expectation that is needed. Much of that remains state responsibility, albeit some of it can be enhanced by the Big Society — or even taken on by the Big Society — but the basic provision has to be authored by the state."

Does the number of Conservative MPs that have signed the Equality Trust's pledge begin to indicate a split within the Tories, with a number behind Clegg's stated agenda of tackling income inequality, and others aligned with the more traditional Conservative aim, as upheld here by George Osborne, of tackling inequality of opportunity? 

Since when has tackling equality of opportunity been a “traditional Conservative aim”? They spent the 1980s undermining countless communities around the country and creating a legacy of dependence that persists to this day. And they’ll do so again if they are able to deliver their cuts programme – except this time the safety net may have disappeared. The few Tory MPs who have signed the Equality Trust pledge have some way to go to justify their apparent commitment, but their demands certainly aren’t being taken seriously by the Coalition. Indeed, Clegg has recently criticised numerical approaches such as distributional impacts and the poverty line after the Budget was found to be “regressive” by the IFS.

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA)'s report 'Connected Communities...' and the Young Foundation's report 'Investing in Social Growth...' both highlighted the need to measure the success, or failure, of the Big Society project. Do you believe that the coalition has a sound plan for measuring the Big Society's outcomes? Could they benefit from maintaining a certain vagueness around their goals?

The Coalition’s “bonfire of targets” and decision to scrap the Audit Commission mean that there will be neither the beans nor the counters to assess the Big Society’s progress. They’ll only benefit from vagueness if the public warm to the idea but don’t question the outcomes.

Finally, how far 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?

Cameron cleverly spotted that while the left had dominated the politics of equality for 65 years and the right had dominated the politics of liberty, the politics of fraternity had been left homeless after the Thatcherite crusade against society and solidarity. Despite successful measures by the Labour government to improve public services, tackle poverty, and lower crime, many communities feel far less cohesive than they did 30 years ago. The left must address this with a "new covenant with the people", in the words of Jon Cruddas, which puts Labour traditions of mutualism, cooperation, and reciprocity at the centre of its approach to public policy. The recent interest in the writing of Saul Alinsky and the work of London Citizens must not become a fad; it must underpin the work of the Labour movement in every community in the country.

Next: Matthew Taylor of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA)

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

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