Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My speech "In Defence of Multiculturalism" at the Initiatives of Change conference in Caux has just been published on their website at
http://www.caux.iofc.org/sites/all/files/cx2011_gregg_20110729.pdf
It was a wierd summer. We left for the conference a few days after the dreadful events in Norway, spent a week in a castle in Switzerland, then went to Italy whose economy then started to collapse alongside that of the EU, and then we got back to see rioting breaking out across the UK.

Third Sector Research blow to Big Society

In soon to be published research the Third Sector Research Centre casts doubt on one of the central tenets of Big Society - the notion that volunteering can, on its own, improve the level of social capital in an area. Their methodology was as follows: Using the Citizenship Survey (which the Government has now cut - they don't like measurement) "a cross-classification of sampling units by decile of deprivation and region was developed so that volunteering rates could be calculated for 90 types of area.... A measure of social capital was developed and then correlated with the area measure of volunteering, but the assocation disappered once controls were introduced for area deprivation." As they say "This raises questions about whether volunteering can improve the level of social capital in an area in the absence of improvements in economic circumstances" (McCulloch, Mohan and Smith 2010)
In other words "It's the Economy Stupid!"

Monday, October 17, 2011

Big Society – Bread and Circuses for the 21st Century

The Big Society has been a dominant theme for Cameron and his close followers since before last May’s election. Various attempts have been made to define Big Society in such a way that it could be identified and measured but most of these lack any rigour at all. As far as it is possible to determine them the major components of the approach can be adduced as being:

• Public service “reform” – privatising and “voluntarising” state services
• Localisation– transferring power from central government to local communities
• Volunteerism
• Publishing government data and “cutting bureaucracy and regulation”, ending Labour’s “target-driven” culture
• Supporting charities, social enterprises, mutuals and coops

Its cheerleaders see the Big Society initiative as being “a progressive, innovative strategy… based upon the principles of empowering communities, redistributing power and fostering a culture of volunteerism...(sharing) the government’s vision of a society where volunteering and community spirit become second nature”.
The Big Society Network describes its approach as one driven by “…anger and frustration at the recent behaviour of both the City and Westminster and relatively powerless to change them. We are often anonymous taxpayers without a real sense of how our money gets spent. Most of us try to be reasonably good citizens but our influence seems very small”.
There are a number of paradoxes with the notion of Big Society set out below. In the year since the 2010 election and after at least four attempts to launch or relaunch the initiative, few people are clearer now then they were when Cameron launched this strange mixture of ‘Red Tory’ ideas. The specially appointed Big Society Tsar, Lord Nat Wei has resigned from the post on the laughable grounds that he couldn’t afford to continue volunteering. The four vanguard Big Society local authorities have all had different problems introducing the concept and Liverpool (the only urban and relatively poor one of the four) has pulled out altogether because of the scale of the cuts to local authorities. A policy vehicle that has been as vague, often risible and downright dishonest as the notion of Big Society would usually have already been consigned to the dustbin of history. It is therefore worth asking why the approach has been so surprisingly resilient and why Cameron is so convinced that the concept will allow him to simultaneously detoxify the Tory Party brand at the same time as accomplishing a more radical attack on public services and the poor than that carried out under Margaret Thatcher.

I start my analysis of the Big Society by pointing out a number of paradoxes with the concept and then go on to compare Big Society to a much more comprehensive, radical and far reaching attempt to remodel the citizen’s relationship to the state - the Great Society launched in 1960s America by President Johnson.

The Paradoxes of Big Society

1. Big Society is organised chaos
In an article in the Telegraph (28/12/2010) Michael Gove compared the Government’s approach to Big Society to Maoism. He appeared to be alluding to the Government’s ceaseless push for “revolutionary” change. He hit the nail on the head rather better than he realized. The Big Society is indeed a revolutionary movement launched from the countryside - although it is more Oxfordshire after a short stroll than Yannan Province after the Long March - coupled with a hatred of urban intellectuals and nostalgia for purity and community.
Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, leaves no doubt about what that message is. "We are going to shake up the balance of power in this country. We are going to change the nature of the constitution. Be in no doubt about our commitment to localism. I know I look like an unlikely revolutionary, but the revolution starts here".
Nick Boles is the Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford and an arch-Cameroon. In his book, Which Way's Up: the Future for Coalition Britain and How to Get There he describes what he calls "Big Bang localism" – a radical decentralisation to "dismantle some of central government's most wasteful bureaucracies". Subsequently he gave this theory colourful expression by talking of “injecting a form of chaos” into local communities.
Francis Maude, the cabinet Office Minister responsible for Big Society has promised a “future that is chaotic and disorderly”.
What the Hell is Going On?
2. They don’t really want to define or measure it

Cameron and other leading Big Society followers in the Government have consistently failed to define exactly what they mean by the notion. Its philosophical forbears (David Blond and ResPublica) are equally vague. The real benefit of the concept is that it can’t be measured and in practice it acts as a broad enabling concept under which a whole variety of sometimes contradictory policies and prejudices can be found. It is the theoretical equivalent of blancmange – it is so deceptively sweet it must be bad for you, it can adopt almost any shape you want it to and most importantly it still wobbles! Such vagueness is not an accident. Big Society sets itself totally against Labour’s culture of top-down target setting as well as planning laws and regulation of all types. Another advantage of fudging the question of measurement is that it avoids the need to draw harsh statistical attention to the effects of the cuts and the growing levels of inequality throughout society. It is therefore difficult to tease out particular evidence of what success would look like for Big Society. Questions about how “Big” society should be make little sense. Instead of evidenced outcomes, the success of the approach will be “felt” rather than seen. Otherwise unmeasurable indicators - such as social cohesion and social capital - are sometimes trundled out to try and answer this question of measurement but this amounts to little more than the substitution of one secret code to clarify another.

The Tories have distanced themselves from what they consider to be top down, bureaucratic and statist New Labour targets. They have introduced a kind of contempt for measurement against targets coupled with the abolition of numerous quangos and NDPBs that have been used to control measure or regulate different aspects of society. To take just one example, earlier this year, DCLG announced that it would no longer be collecting data from Supporting People. According to its website,

‘…the Department wishes to reduce the time-consuming and expensive burden of numerous data reporting requirements imposed on local authorities [which then commission services locally] by central government’.

This is likely to have disastrous results for vulnerable people – but we will no longer be able to measure just how disastrous.

This approach is paradoxical and surprising. In the last year, there have been countless news stories about outcomes-driven contracts — from social impact bonds to payment by results arrangements — which require charities to use data to demonstrate the difference they’ve made. David Cameron has also announced plans to measure “national wellbeing” and made a commitment to open data. All these things require charities to get a grip on good monitoring and evaluation.

One of the most worrying of all of these attempts to deregulate are the increasing attacks on equalities and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The notion of ‘equality’ that has done so much to improve life in the UK for a wide range of those groups who have so often been discriminated against is now under serious challenge along with an attack on multiculturalism. Instead a much more facile and individualised version of “fairness” is now put forward as the new commonsense – ‘it’s not fair that I should have to pay higher taxes to send someone else’s children to University’. This notion of fairness is a key part of the larger attack on solidarity and social cohesion. The rich can increasingly look after their own and those who cannot afford to go private can go hang.

Leading ‘Red Tories’ Philip Blond and John Milbank argue that a synthesis of old Tory and traditional left ideas is the only way to achieve a ‘genuinely egalitarian society’. Their response to the National Equality Panel's report was to question the whole basis of ‘equality of opportunity’. According to them the "rhetoric of egalitarian opportunity means that everyone who doesn't succeed is defined as a failure. Such contempt reinforces inequality". Who are these individuals defining people as ‘failures’ in this way? The authors assert this without any argument and then continue with the bizarre premise that "equality of opportunity is ... wholly synonymous with a market without morals and a meritocracy without merit". They then make weird platonic appeals to "virtue" as their key concept - but of course they fail to say what they mean by it:

"…the more we seek to link social and economic prestige with virtue, then the more we can hope for good financial and political leaders possessed of compassion and integrity".

A circular argument if ever there was one. (“No equality in opportunity”. the Guardian 28/1/10). However, what they fail to remember is that it is precisely those ‘masters of the universe’ who recently wrecked our economy who are best at linking their own riches - their social and economic prestige - with their own virtue. Indeed, this is effectively what ‘greed is good’ means in the modern era. The Red Tories, instead of challenging this, actually end up by celebrating "a hierarchy of excellence" which looks uncommonly like Britain's current class structure.

The demise of the Audit Commission and Central Office of Information, significant cuts to the Charity Commission, and NICE, as well as RDAs mean the end not only of the possibility or regulation but also a serious restraint on the possibility of any significant redistribution between areas of comparative richness and poverty.

Big Society purports to be about the community and society but is actually about the individual and the family. Nat Wei described Big Society as being “Primarily about citizens taking more control” and that the true test of Big Society will be a real shift of power and control to ordinary citizens. However, at the same time Big Society sets out to decimate those aspects of our social welfare and state apparatus that seek to redistribute power and resources between rich and poor. The question that we therefore have to ask is who benefits from this change of power and control? It will certainly not be for the poorest and most marginalised whose protection under equalities legislation or welfare provision will be lost. It will certainly not be those who rely on public services and are unable to choose to spend money they don’t have on privatised alternatives.

The Big Society is little more than a rather polite, version of the Tea Party that has swept across the US. It starts from exactly the same basis: Private = Good, Public = Bad. It believes that we can only be free if we are in competition with each other in a free market. Therefore all regulation is inherently bad ("socialism"). Far from being a Big Society this is a recipe for an eventual war of all against all. A dreadful Hobbesian dystopia.

3. We are already doing it

If the Big Society notion of ‘active citizen involvement’ actually means anything then surely we are already doing it. Community activism and local volunteerism are nothing new. Civil Society organisations are perhaps more developed in the UK than anywhere else in the world. The Red Tory and Big Society principle that civil society has been co-opted and endangered by the overreaching state as well as the predatory market just isn’t borne out on the ground. Indeed, I will go on to argue that a number of features of the Big Society are likely to threaten the independence of civil society despite the claim it set-up to avoid this very occurrence. Soon to be published research by the Third Sector Research Centre show that there is no evidence for the Big Society theorists’ claims that the state has crowded out the voluntary and community sector.

Hundreds of thousands of voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations are already working effectively at a local level and around communities of neighbourhood and identity. Big Society and government cuts are actually likely to make these organisations less resilient rather than more active. Many voluntary and community groups are already losing huge amounts of funding and this leads to the next paradox:

4. Big Society = big cuts = smaller civil society

Big Society is all about providing the ideological defence against those campaigning against cuts in public services at local, regional and national level. Despite all the rhetoric that Big Society will improve the conditions for success for smaller and more local voluntary organisations, all the evidence is of massive cuts to the charitable sector as local authorities, and other commissioning agencies cut back on their spending (QB). Many of those involved in campaigning against these big cuts are civil society organisations. There is lots of evidence that the ConDem government is much less tolerant of dissidence amongst civil society organisations than was New Labour. Many Labour MPs come from voluntary sector backgrounds and after nearly two decades of work developing relationships and policy with the sector there was a real understanding of the importance of the independence of the sector and the need for groups to be able to campaign (where appropriate) against local or national government even though these may be funding them. This relationship was enshrined in the “Compact” between government and the voluntary sector developed over the years of the Blair and Brown Governments. There is little evidence of a similar understanding amongst the new Tory Government. One of the many key agencies that were abolished as part of the Bonfire of the Quangos was the Compact Commission which oversaw the functioning of the Compact which was empowered to intervene in national, regional or local breaches of these agreements.

Along with cuts to funding and increasing numbers of voluntary groups going to the wall, it is likely that the remaining medium-sized and larger voluntary sector organisations will become increasingly co-opted by the Government as well as by the private sector. This runs totally counter to the rhetoric of strong and independent civil society organisations that are supposed to lie at the heart of Big Society.

5. Big Society = Big Contracts

Big Society spokespeople like Francis Maude and Lord Nat Wei have argued that the changes brought about by Big Society will operate most effectively at the local and neighbourhood level. Francis Maude said that this level of the “microscopically granular” was the level at which change would happen. Many have interpreted this as likely to lead to support for smaller, more community based voluntary and civil society organisations. Actually, this is far from the case. Aggregated contracts for public services mean that many contracts will be far too large for civil society organisations to bid for. This is the very opposite of the microscopically granular. These large contracts are going to private sector firms like Serco, Veolia, A4E, Arriva etc rather than voluntary agencies who are reduced to being sub contracted or even subcontracted. Out of 40 prime contractors for the Work Programme announced in April 2010 only two were won by a voluntary organisation. Payment by results will also privilege larger private sector organisations rather than smaller charities that are unlikely to have the cashflow reserves to be able to wait months for payments and to cross-subsidise and loss-lead so as to win contracts.

This will change the whole relationship between the voluntary sector, the state and the private sector. In the years of new Labour, local authorities and other commissioners were used to the important independence of the civil society organisations that they commissioned or grant funded. These relationships were regulated by the Compact which recognised the importance of voluntary groups as whistle blowers and critical friends. It is unlikely that Serco or Group 4 will look so gently on charities they subcontract if these same organisations represent their clients in a way that is critical or demanding. The independence of the large parts of the charitable sector is thus under threat and its ability to speak truth to power likely to be more constrained than for many years.

6. Big Society = Little England

Big society is a nostalgic and rural view of society. David Cameron says that he tracks the original idea to his thinking in his Dad’s garden in Witney – small town Oxfordshire.
Four initial 'vanguard areas' were selected to run pilots:
• Liverpool, Merseyside (withdrew from pilot in February 2011)
• Eden, Cumbria
• Sutton, Greater London
• Windsor and Maidenhead, Berkshire
With the exception of Liverpool these represent some of the most well off, rural or suburban areas in the UK. Even some months after the launch of these vanguard areas the local voluntary sector coordinating bodies in three of the areas reported that there had been no contact with them from the local authority leads. In reality there has been surprisingly little effort made to involve the organised voluntary sector in Big Society approaches at a practical level. Government has however made it clear to all the larger agencies funded as Office of Civil Society strategic partners, that they must promote and support Big Society.

I can see how Big Society might work in Eden, Sutton and Windsor as I can in Witney – like Cameron’s father, my mother lives there. If a library is closed down by West Oxfordshire Council I can imagine a group of willing volunteers trying to run it for a few months for nothing. Witney – yes possibly – but I can’t see how it will work in Wigan or Warrington, Walthamstow or Watford. Actually, the Big Society seems to be having real trouble even in Witney with the news that the only youth centre in Witney is about to close down following a sharp drop in public donations and local authority cuts (‘PM’s favourite big society youth centre faces closure’ – the Guardian 25/6/2011)

7. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

As well as being “Maoist” there are weird streaks of anarchism and even Leninism (All Power to the Parishes) about the notion of Big Society. Both
“Red Toryism” and its more recent (and equally incoherent) mirror image “Blue Labourism” share a deeply ingrained nostalgia for a pre-Lapsarian England, They both hark back to a time before the creation of the Welfare State and the “bureaucratic and statist” NHS. Descriptions by Phillip Blond of the society he envisages can look a bit like the fictional village of Ambridge that features in the Archers – “nuns cycling to communion through the early morning mist” in John Major’s immortal quote from George Orwell. Blond is quite explicit that he hankers after an England that died out with the industrial revolution. Blond sees himself as providing a critique of modern secularism as well as the modern state. He writes in praise of the "medieval network of a predominantly horizontal communal and social order, exemplified by the church but also including guilds and agrarian communities organised around differential property relationships". Sadly, he believes, this ideal condition of society was destroyed by the rise of powerful monarchs and states. Another way of characterising his beliefs would be: 'In Praise of Feudalism' or (as The Independent 25/11/09) notes: 'Back to the Middle Ages'. This is nostalgia taken much too far!

Blond’s cure for the ills of “broken Britain” prioritises the family and marriage as central to the nation’s health. He also believes that rolling back the state so as to transfer assets to the middle classes as well as the poor is the key to a solution. In a recent article in the Evening Standard (30th June 2011) Blond tells Alison Roberts that Big Society has started to go wrong because the Government “has not thought it through radically enough”. For Blond “it’s not really about volunteering and philanthropy, its about changing the agenda for those at the bottom of our society. The great missing middle of the Big Society is the economics”. He suggests that cabinet infighting, massive cuts and the Tories’ failure to grasp the point of Big Society is leading to the policy’s increasing incoherence. What he fails to acknowledge is just how resistant the Tory party usually is to any attempt to protect the poor. He fails to understand how beguiling they are likely to find the parts of his approach which speak of an Arcadian “Merrie England” but how dispensable most of them will find his desire to radically change the status quo. Instead of the “horizontal communal and social order” of Blond’s nostalgic imagination – replete with guilds, mutuals and cooperatives, we end up with a much more traditional desire to restore the English rural class system enshrined in the hymn “the rich man in his castle the poor man at his gate – GOD made them, high or lowly and ordered their estate.”

8. The Perils of Localism

The localism agenda that might look attractive at first sight will on current indications merely magnify the differences between those neighbourhoods that are doing very well thank you, and those poorer localities that are already far behind in terms of resources (whether in social or actual capital). Spouting on about localism and empowerment without a real redistribution of resources is a lame joke rather than a viable policy.

The architecture critic in the Observer (19/12/2010) sets out why the Government's localism bill is bound to lead to trouble. Eric Pickles, he says, "seems to have an idea of a 'community' as being a harmonious entity, sharing common aims and hopes, and civilised ways of resolving differences". The reality is far from this and there are bound to be feuds and bitterness as well as eccentric decisions when communities (i.e. parishes and villages) are given the right to produce their own development plans and propose or veto housing developments within their boundaries; a NIMBYism charter by any other name. The correct term for this kind of policy is "atomisation" rather than "localism". Without the countervailing pressure of Government ensuring that views and interests beyond the parochial get some sort of look in, chaos will ensue. Of course, the Government has said that they see "chaos" as a positive product of the Big Society approach - a necessary by-product of their ideological desperation to destroy as much of the State as they can. It is bound to lead to a post code lottery where the rich areas prosper and the poorer areas sink.
Unacknowledged nostalgia can be a fatal component in bad social planning. This is another case where it is worth ‘being careful what you wish for’. The notion of localism can so easily descend into parochialism just as community can descend into communalism - a war of tribe against tribe; all against all. Only active and viable state institutions (in partnership with civil society) can provide a counterbalance and check on this tendency as well as providing the kind of material and monetary support for some of the most deprived neighbourhoods - without which they would collapse in ways that could bring everything else down with them. Parts of the US are already in this kind of catastrophic tailspin. Blond's good intentions (if such they are) would only make this hell more likely to happen here in the UK. Only the state is able to regulate and redistribute resources away from the richest to some of the poorest areas. Without such strategic intervention a very different and even more dangerous atomisation would break out between different neighbourhoods or localities setting those with fewer resources in direct competition with each other as well as the richer ones. In this sense Blond's approach is akin to a kind of communitarian anarchism.
It is no surprise that the key arguments underpinning Blond's Red Toryism are more theological than logical. He is an unusual convert from Catholicism to the Church of England and religion is at the root of all his political beliefs - including his opposition to abortion in all but extreme cases and his rather stuffy critique of permissiveness.

9. Ideological or a way of avoiding ideology?

The notion of the Big Society must be understood as the death-knell of the Welfare State as we have known it. In seeking to reduce the deficit over only 4 years by making massive cuts the Government is subjecting the UK to round two of the shock doctrine, otherwise known as Thatcher’s unfinished business. In the process it will seek to break up any remains of the solidarity that still resides in our political culture and substitute for it an impoverished and attenuated notion of “community”

Big Society is the Tories way of using ‘the community’ (including voluntary and community organisations) to dismantle the welfare state. It achieves this directly by getting Third Sector organisations to join the private sector feeding frenzy as the NHS and public services are forced to sell themselves off to the lowest bidder. The voluntary and community sector is simultaneously being used as a smoke screen to make it look like this is a cuddly and humane process rather than a selfish and destructive pillaging of the real social capital that we stand to lose - our welfare state.

One of the consequences of us being so vague and ambiguous when we use the word ‘community’ has been the ability of both New Labour and the Tories to hijack the term and set it against the notion of public and state provision. As the marketisation of so much of our public services proceeds ever faster we are increasingly losing the vocabulary to identify and discuss what is actually happening to us. This is a very dangerous development for all of us on the Left but in many ways we have played into the Tories’ hands through our fetishisation of the concept of community. Similarly, the voluntary and community sector has had little to say about the way in which New Labour has used the concept to disguise and collude with its attack on public services. There is a real danger that “cooperative councils” will end up offloading responsibility to local people (“communities”) rather than really unlocking their participation and involvement in a model of mutual service provision that is really responsive to different local needs and that builds a really inclusive solidarity rather than a vacuous sense of community.

Big Society notions of ‘choice’, ‘fairness’ and ‘community’ look unexceptional, commonsensical and cosy but in fact carry a deep ideological content as well as having dangerous practical consequences. The greater the attack on public services by the market – whether by direct privatisation or ‘voluntarisation’ or through the rich and middle classes opting out of them – the more unequal and unfair our society will become. Appeals to community and localism and indeed the notion of Big Society itself, are just smokescreens that can be handily used to disguise this process.

The Big Society actually represents an atomisation of our society and could easily descend further into an anomic and chaotic locality-based version of the devil take the hindmost. The state and localities need to be kept in some sort of balance. Whilst it is true that many aspects of the UK state were too centralised under New Labour, the pendulum could be about to swing so far to the opposite extreme that there will remain no effective mechanisms to allow for equitable distribution or redistribution between rich and poor families, localities and regions.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats have successfully managed to deploy an impoverished notion of ‘community’ so as to mount a direct attack on both the state and society. The notion of community they seek to impose and which they see as the locus for involvement and voluntary activism is a notion of community that may make sense in Witney or even parts of Notting Hill. In Hackney or Tower Hamlets, Worthington or Wigan however, it is likely to be seen as a largely middle class joke – cutting local services on which poor people rely (both as recipients and producers, clients and workers) whilst encouraging local people to compensate by getting together to volunteer to provide them for free. It amounts to little more than a kind of glorified neighbourhood watch scheme and is being used as a smoke screen to hide the withdrawal of resources and public service from the hardest pressed neighbourhoods. Of course the one sort of cohesion that they clearly don’t want to stimulate is the kind of collective action which people in their localities and work places are likely to take when they realise what a con-trick this Big Society nonsense really is.
11. Big Society – the end of the Welfare State?

The Big Society might seem at first sight to carry echoes of the Great Society - the massive attempt by President Johnson in the US in the 1960s to address urban poverty and racial discrimination. What is becoming rapidly clear is that it actually represents its exact opposite. On every index the idealism of the 1960s in the US or of the Welfare State in Britain from the late 1940s is set to be replaced by its opposite in the Big Society whether in terms of fairness, income distribution, gender and racial equality, investment in the arts and sciences, access to legal advice, spending on health and education and so on.

The Great Society was an ambitious and partly successful attempt to move the US out of a looming slump by seeking to address inequality and stimulate demand. Perhaps the only similarity between the Great and Big societies is that the US is currently still embroiled in an unwinnable foreign conflict in Afghanistan just as it was in the 1960s in Vietnam. Sadly it was the increased expenditure on the Vietnam debacle that hobbled and then reversed much of the Great Society in the US.

Expenditure on schools and other public projects was a key feature of the early welfare state as well as of the US in the 1960s but contrast this with the current demise of capital spending on school buildings by the ConDem government and their refusal to support industrial employers such as Sheffield Forgemasters. The Welfare State and particularly the NHS was introduced at a time when the country had a national debt quite as large as today’s. In the US, Medicare and Medicaid, whilst not perfect, were at least launched as a safety net for the old and the poor as a key part of the Great Society. By contrast the coalition government is now smashing up the National Health Service despite its pre-election promise that there would be no more major upheavals in the health area. Access to the Law for all was a pivotal part of the Welfare State. Similarly, the first attempts to fund legal services for the poor as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” were launched in the US. Currently in the UK we see the final death-throes of Civil Legal Aid, as well as cuts to Housing and Welfare Benefits on a scale that could be described as a new ‘War on the Poor’. Even the US 1960s investment in the Humanities and the Arts contrasts with huge planned cuts by the ConDems to Museums, Libraries and Arts organisations. The demise of Regional Development Agencies as a way of stimulating employment and economic growth as well as the destruction of regulatory bodies like the Audit Commission will make any serious attempts to share the pain across the regions and between localities impossible.

Affirmative Action in the US in the 1960s resulted in a more than halving of the numbers of African Americans defined as living in poverty. This was mirrored in the UK in the 1960s by the Race Relations Act and real advances in a climate of multiculturalism. By contrast the Big Society has taken no firm steps to ensure that massive public sector cuts won’t systematically damage both women and ethnic minority employment and hard pressed black and minority ethnic communities. Cuts to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and constant attacks on multiculturalism are all part of the project to return nostalgically to a pre-immigration England which never really existed. The prospects for social cohesion in this new ‘Big Society’ are truly dire. Just look at the proposal to cap Housing Benefit in London which seems likely to result in an even more comprehensive social and ethnic cleansing of the richer parts of the City then that achieved by Shirley Porter’s corrupt ‘Homes for Votes’ scandal on Westminster City Council in the mid 1980s.

The localism agenda that might look attractive at first sight will on current indications merely magnify the differences between those neighbourhoods that are doing very well thank you and those poorer localities that are already far behind in terms of resources (whether in social or actual capital). Spouting on about empowerment and community without a real redistribution of resources is a lame joke rather than a viable policy. This type of communitarianism is the philosophical equivalent of Morris dancing or 'Scouting for Boys'. It is a way of avoiding the real issues of inequality, discrimination, class and exclusion that continue to scar our society. It is certainly not the kind of theoretical background on which one might base any sort of sensible social policy towards dealing with the serious issues that actually face us in the real world.

At times Big Society proponents even proffer the weird and na├»ve view that somehow if we all got together as individuals in our local ‘communities’ to share festivals and have “Big Lunches” then divisions of class and race can mysteriously be overcome. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against street parties, festivals and cultural shows as such. I am just not convinced that by eating samosas together we are really going to build sufficient social capital to overcome the real differences in power and status that do so much to injure our fractured and unequal society. The notion that a society in the middle of being blown apart by huge market forces can be put back together by ‘a bit of shared quiche and a few games of pavement Twister’ is just a silly conjuring trick to amuse or bemuse the revellers even further. Big Society is bread and circuses for the 21st Century.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The word "communities" means poor people

Society Guardian's recent interview with Neil Johnston of Paddington Development Trust (14/9/11) threw up some fascinating questions about the Big Society and the nature of "communities". Shortly after the election PDT was declared by Nick Hurd to be "the Big Society in Action" only to have its funding cut massively by Tory Wetsminster City Council within weeks. Johnston rightly takes umbrage at politician's patronising language: "The word 'communities' means poor people - big sopciety means poor people ... this whole thing about broken Britain, but then people ask 'does that mean I'm broken'"