Later today, we are expecting a review by the Young Foundation think tank who are set to say that the big society has baffled the public and that it is in danger of being reduced to an empty slogan. Unfortunately, all I have been able to access on this so far is the PoliticsHome synopsis, The Times (hopefully failing) pay wall has been the unfortunate obstacle.
Anyway, there is enough to go to say that whilst I haven’t seen the report or its key findings – there is some serious truth in the think tank’s apparent concerns. There is too much emphasis on the spin and sound bite friendly aspects of the big society. Instead of capturing the localist agenda, it has instead fallen default to being seen as a face of the extensive public sector cuts.
This report will be damaging to the big society, as it is a think tank that is very close to the project – but it is clear from some of their recent events (see Investing in Social Growth : Can the Big Society be more than a slogan, for example) that they are unhappy at the current practices regarding the government’s big society project.
As I have said before, what is needed is a less vacuous project that simply encourages a mere do it yourself, laissez faire approach. It fails to provide people, workers and the like, real power. I have been recently reading Chomsky and was influenced by his work on Libertarian Socialism. Whilst I don’t agree it is sociologically nor politically possibly to devolve away a central organisation, as we need some coordinated management of devolved organisations – he has some really good ideas in terms of providing more power to people to become more creative and gain more control over their production.
He talks about the importance of worker controlled units, such as workers councils, and cooperatives. The left needs to produce a viable counter narrative to the big society so that we don’t lose the localist agenda. As Abbott stated clearly the other day – it’s not all about the state. The state is important, however. The current government’s practices of cutting, and cutting into key services, well that will only undermine local power – regardless of the rhetoric. Chomsky’s writings in regards to the soviets and factory councils in Soviet Union are also illuminating when considering these debates.
It’s also about remaking and recasting the current perspective of the left seeing the state as the be all and end ell. The state needs to provide everyone with a sustainable living – at the moment, the minimum wage (we need a living wage), benefit system and other aspects, fails to do this. However, the current government are only going to undermine this, and so there is no wonder most people look at the big society or IDS reforms and think, hang on a minute, what is the real reason behind these policies/ideas? The state however is a must if localism is to work – there is a need for coordination so as to offset the postcode lottery, which many involved in the big society see as an inevitable feature of the concept, as a way to perversely improve competition:
Natalie Evans of Policy Exchange, the centre-right thinktank which has generated much of the thinking behind the Big Society, insists postcode lotteries are part of the plan. She acknowledges that differences will develop, as the Big Society leads to improved performances in one area. “Where something works really well, that will mean people next door think ‘why aren’t we getting that?'” They will then begin to put pressure on to get what their neighbours have. “Rather than the lowest common denominator,” Evans explains, “it might help to encourage improvements and better delivery of services.”
So, whilst I have basically rehashed already said ideas – this is because I think its paramount for the left to construct a progressive alternative to the big society instead of having a wholly negative approach. We should rightly devalue the big society for what it is, a mere cost cutting exercise, but we need to promote progressive alternative local power – and of course, pivotal for this is also a consistent approach to the budget cuts, as the cuts in key areas are unneccessary and only undermining the prospect of constructing an effective localist agenda.