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MPs and the Big Society

Whatever your views on the Conservatives' Big Society idea for the UK, it seems reasonable to ask what our political leaders are doing to help realise an idea they are so keen to promote. That is what a recent survey of MPs aims to do – but the approach isn’t free from controversy
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Guy Aitchison
20 September 2010

At the core of the government’s plans for a Big Society is the belief that people across the country will diligently take up voluntary work in their local communities once the bureaucracy of an over-bearing state has been swept away. More than that, it points towards active decentralisation and a practical form of democracy. The approach has yet to be tested, and there remain serious doubts over its credibility but whatever your views on the Big Society, it seems reasonable to ask what our political leaders are doing to help realise an idea they are so keen to promote. That is what a new website surveying MPs aims to do – but the approach isn’t free from controversy, as the exchange below with its editor, Eugene Galloway, demonstrates.

Eugene Galloway: The Big Society is based upon the principles of empowering communities, redistributing power and fostering a culture of volunteerism. We at The Big Society are fully behind this initiative, and share the government’s vision of a society where volunteering and community spirit become second nature.

We feel certain that Members of Parliament will be leading by example with regard to this progressive, innovative strategy. Consequently, we have written to every MP on the government benches to ask them to detail all the voluntary work they have undertaken during the summer recess of Parliament.

The full data can be accessed by a site-wide search facility, browsed alphabetically by MP’s surname and by political party, and we have also provided a list of “Top Volunteers” to indicate which MPs have been doing the most to forge The Big Society.The results - which have been published at The Big Society have so far been slightly underwhelming. At the time of launching the website approximately 5 to 6% of government MPs have declared their voluntary contributions to The Big Society. There have been some notable efforts from the likes of Harriet BaldwinDamian CollinsPenny Mordaunt and Amber Rudd, but the information to date suggests that the vast majority of Coalition MPs have yet to fully buy into The Big Society project. However, we are regularly contacting MPs for updates, and anticipate a far greater uptake from our representatives as the Big Society becomes established.

Remember, we are all in this together!

Anthony Barnett: I'd once have agreed with this project...however talking with a new MP about what it is like your initiative came up spontaneously. First, it seemed threatening as you said you'd put up that they do no voluntary work if they don't reply (this one gets 400 emails a day). Second, the MP asked, what does it mean? A good local MP does all kinds of unpaid work in their constituency but as part of their job. You praise Amber Rudd for her "notable effort" but she has entered doing the soup kitchen in her own constituency in Hastings. Er what if this gets press coverage in the local paper? Isn't it helping ensure she gets re-elected? I mean isn't it part of her job? It is not volunteering in someone else's constituency which would be genuinely disinterested. So I am not at all convinced by this survey. I'd be interested to know your response

Eugene Gilbert: We have tried to make this website as neutral as possible. We have copied all the responses from MPs verbatim, with no editorial input whatsoever – what you see on the “Voluntary Contributions To The Big Society” section is exactly what the MPs themselves have declared. In the first instance we gave each MP a fortnight to reply, although we did make it clear that the site would be updated regularly, and that any information received after this “deadline” would be included. We have sent out reminders this week, and will continue to correspond with MPs and update the site ongoing.

“Threatening” seems a rather strong word – if you look at the site, nowhere do we ever state that any MP has done no voluntary work whatsoever, we merely indicate that they haven’t declared any to us.

With regard to the Top Volunteers, we make no judgement on the value of voluntary work declared. This section is listed alphabetically, so nothing should be read into the fact that Harriet Baldwin appears at the top of the list, other than nobody with a surname that starts with A has provided a response. As for your comment about Amber Rudd, this could apply to any MP on the government and opposition benches. Virtually everything they do could be construed as an attempt to ensure they get re-elected. Ms Rudd sent us this information and we were happy to publish it. Her motivations in volunteering we leave for other people to judge.

We are aware that the job description for an MP is very loosely defined, and that as you say “a good local MP does all kinds of unpaid work in their constituency but as part of their job”. There is undoubtedly ambiguity here, and there is a subtle but significant difference between what might be termed “waged community work” and “voluntary work”. Like an MP, a street cleaner or member of a council graffiti team could claim that every moment of their working day is “community work”. However, it is not necessarily voluntary work. The Big Society project is effectively promoting the idea of volunteerism, so all we asked was that MPs declared their voluntary work to show that they were leading by example, but refrained from declaring purely symbolic roles. As previously stated, we make no value judgements – whatever voluntary work an MP decides to declare, we will print it verbatim. We leave any further interpretation to the reader.

Anthony Barnett: I'm not convinced. You say you make no value judgement on what an MP declares but by calling them "Top Volunteers" you do, you clearly endorse their description as pure volunteering. There is no health warning about readers needing to make up their own minds. 

You say:

"Like an MP, a street cleaner or member of a council graffiti team could claim that every moment of their working day is “community work”. However, it is not necessarily voluntary work."

But this is clearly untrue and in a way disrespectful of MPs who goodness knows I am critical of. A street cleaner has hours which define "their working day". It would be community work only if they did it unpaid and out of normal hours. An MP does not have working hours, opening a Sunday farmers market or helping at a soup kitchen in the evening is part of being an MP, part of being a representative. 

I suspect you should start by thinking about an MP’s role more holistically. There is clearly, it is written all over the site, an expectation that if MPs do not actually do voluntary work they are failing to be supporters of the Big Society, all words and no deeds etc. But what should we expect of an MP? To work for and represent their constituents in cases where the state (EU/UK/local) has abused its powers or fails them; stay in touch with their constituency as a whole and its needs; participate in parliament, its debates and their select committee (with weird hours) and speak and vote; hold the government to account on areas of their expertise and keep up to date with what is happening, eg the economy, international issues. And you expect them to volunteer?

Personally, I think they should be banned from having second jobs but encouraged to serve pro-bono on the board of a charity so as to broaden their experience. I'm not sure if that would give them a Big Society star.

Guy Aitchison: I'm far more sceptical of the whole Big Society concept than Eugene, whose website takes a somewhat uncritical approach to the whole idea - and I suspect we may disagree on why this project is worthwhile. But we can both agree that MPs on the government benches, instructing us to go forth and volunteer, should at the very least tell us what they are doing! Anthony’s right that it may be difficult to properly distinguish between "voluntary" activity and the kind of stuff an MP does anyway to get re-elected, but that's no reason not to challenge them - let them say what it is they get up to on this website and we can see for ourselves.

MPs will plead that they have a hectic schedule, of course, and I’m sure that’s right, but the truth is that all of us live busy lives; inevitably, this means we have less time to do volunteering than we'd like. Workers in the UK work the longest hours in Europe, after Bulgaria and Romania, and gets less paid leave than the European average. The majority of work out there is boring, routine and frequently demoralising and exhausting. Very few jobs deliver the sense of pride and satisfaction which comes from being an MP and nearly all jobs are worse paid. How is the government planning to address this? Will there be new legislation and incentives aimed at businesses to improve our work-life balance? Can we expect the social power unleashed by the Big Society to be directed at markets in any way? Of course not. If anything, we know to expect the exact opposite:  the freedom of business will always trump that of employees in the Big Society. 

And that's why I'm so suspicious. If Cameron's project were accompanied by a moral critique of markets and how they have come to dominate us, to the detriment of other aspects of our lives, then I would be more inclined to take it seriously. With Philip Blond's communitarianism, at least, there is a more balanced critique of the role both the state and markets have played in corroding civil society and limiting the sphere for citizen involvement and self-realisation. This is not true of the Coalition, however, which aims all its fire at the state with no appreciation of the fact that a reinvigorated civil society requires local democracy, investment in social infrastructure, and limits on the power of the market. No wonder, therefore, the Big Society is so often dismissed as simply mood music to a Hayekian assault on the post-war social democratic settlement.

The Big Society website may provide a useful function. When the MPs expenses crisis broke, it hit a nerve with the public because it reeked of hypocrisy - one rule for us, one rule for them. With MPs slashing public services, whilst telling us take over the extra burden ourselves, at the very least, we have the right to ask, but what are *you* doing?

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

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