Big Society – is this the real thing?

When I helped to paint my community centre, giving up a day’s holiday, I did so because I believed it for a good cause. I believe in contributing for the benefit of my community but is this ‘Big Society’?

Cameron’s Big Society was launched back in July 2010 and had two essential components – volunteerism and localism. His vision was for a dramatic redistribution of power ‘from the elite in Whitehall to the man and woman in the street.’

The Big Society rhetoric provided Tory politicians the opportunity to present a small government ideology with the promise of continuing services through the community sector. It promised to put communities in control but the reality is that they have not benefited in real terms, nor has the wider community.

Cameron’s Big Society is nothing more than a subterfuge for cuts and the continuation of a Thatcherite attack on the state. The notion that the private sector was ever going to step in and replace the hundreds of thousands of jobs culled in the public sector, when in the depths of a recession the banks were not lending, was a pipe dream.

Cameron continually disputed this charge, arguing that the concept of Big Society was ‘not about trying to save money, but about trying to have a bigger, better society.’, a claim contradicted by the Communities Secretary with Pickles publicly boasting that ‘big society was about getting more for less’.

A poll published in The Independent in 2011 found only 21 per cent of people disagreed with the view that ‘The government’s ‘big society’ was merely a cover for spending cuts.’ By the time the Big Society concept had celebrated its first birthday, and although it had been through four relaunches, 78 per cent of voters did not know what the ‘Big Society’ was meant to be. Those that did have some understanding saw it ‘as a recipe for abandonment’.

It is hard not to see Cameron’s Big Society as the big con it really is.

It was launched without any insight into how the voluntary sector worked and the costs involved. Plenty of community spirited people might be willing to work for nothing for the benefit of society but they certainly won’t want to or could not afford to incur costs to do so.

As government inspired council cuts continue to take their toll on us all, the voluntary sector has also been heavily hit. This is a bit that Cameron appeared to forget to think through. The delivery mechanisms for his ‘Big Society’ need funding and when local authorities are having their funding grants cut by huge amounts, then the voluntary sector projects cannot sustain themselves. Many have already disappeared.

The Big Society was supposed to make us all want to volunteer our time for the betterment of society. In reality, the funding cuts imposed by the Tory led government have deprived hundreds of thousands of volunteering opportunities. But it doesn’t stop there.

Behind all the talk of localising power, enabling and volunteering, the Tory vision of the ‘Big Society’ is very clear. Cameron’s pet project is built on the underlying intention of sacking hundreds of thousands of professionally trained public sector workers and to instead provide vital services on the cheap with volunteers. There is a clear difference between services provided by qualified and trained workers and those provided by community minded volunteers. Those of us who can give up some time to help with community projects do so knowing that we are doing ‘our bit’. There is a clear difference and this is the real crux of the issue. This is the reality of Cameron’s Big Society.

A big society, a fairer society… whatever it is called is about one clear notion.  It is not about replacing workers with volunteers, it is about volunteering to work. We must all be mindful of this difference and not fall into the trap laid down by those proponents of Cameron’s ideology.


Guest Blog: Zoe Williams – OurWelfareWorks

First published on this blog written by author and Guardian columnist Zoe Williams takes on the ‘Strivers V Scrounger’ myth, arguing that it has been rolled out time and time again, as a way of trying set people against each another to suit a vengeful political narrative about the financial crisis.

Political con artistry – the dark art of division

I know women who no longer work, even though their kids are at school, and they have the whole day. They’re supported by their banker husbands, so you can’t accuse them of being a burden on the state.

Nevertheless, when I think of all that money wasted on their education  – taxpayers’ money, ploughed into universities, into secondary and primary schools – I can’t help thinking that, as a nation, in this period of national near-emergency, we just can’t afford to carry these workshy leeches.

Actually, I don’t know anyone like that. I don’t know any bankers. I see some affluent people around the traps, in the day, without any kids, that could meet this stereotype. She plays into my prejudice against the moneyed, idle Mrs X.  But for precisely that reason, the prejudice emanates from the picture more strongly than the reversal-of-expectation, rich-people-are-also-lazy, perhaps-even-lazier-than-poor trope that I’m aiming for.

We’ve lived for so long in a period of growth that I’d forgotten how brazen, how unsophisticated, how jaw-dropping the attempts are, that aim to set people against one another when times are hard and it suits a vengeful political narrative.

Politicians, people in public life, upon whose integrity rests not simply their own reputation, but the reputation of Westminster, will tell you that we have a “benefit culture”, that the low-paid are subsiding the idle unemployed to live in houses better than they themselves can afford.

They’ll tell you that to keep benefits in line with inflation is “unsustainable” even while doing so has steadily driven down unemployment benefit, as a proportion of average income, since the Seventies (wages, most of the time, grow faster than inflation).

They’ll tell you that the unwaged are costing the money, when in fact only three per cent of the bill goes on unemployment, and most housing benefit claims come from people in work, caused not by renters themselves but by the impossible disparity between average rent and average income.

Osborne attempts not just to create a meaningless distinction, between strivers and shirkers (most strivers, obviously, are on benefits as well; most shirkers would love to be strivers, if only some idiot hadn’t broken the economy); the divide wouldn’t help him unless he could pit them against one another, blame the travails of the strivers on the low cunning of the shirkers.

Politicians take such delight when the polls bear out their fabricated prejudices, but they should no more publicly rejoice when people agree with them than a con artist should boast when they’ve parted someone else from their money. What remnants of credibility the political class has left, they are shredding with this dishonesty. People won’t swallow it forever.

You can keep up to date with Zoe via Twitter on @zoesqwilliams


Same old Tories….

The Tory’s austerity measures are just not working…figures released show there are weaker tax revenues, substantially higher public spending, and growth at only 0.8% rather than the predicted 2.5%. So with unemployment still increasing, youth unemployment at its highest and no plan in Osborne’s budget for growth and more cuts on the way it is only going to get worse.

The LibDems have championed an increase in tax allowances and therefore it is no surprise that they have clung on to this one issue in any discussion relating to the budget as they know that there is little else in this Tory budget that they can be proud of.

They really do not have any credibility left. Osborne’s  ‘Millionaire’s budget’ will only help the privileged. The removal of the 50p tax rate, and no mansion tax or tycoon tax, shows that they really are the same old Tories.

We are ‘all in this together’ – NOT…the Tories have shown their true colours and launched an attack on the pensioners with a stealth tax which will ensure they will be the big losers in this budget. Other losers are families who will face reductions in child benefit with a taper (that will be highly complex to implement) and cuts to working tax credits.

If all this is not bad enough, there is a renewed attack against the working classes and the labour movement with the Tory proposals for regional public sector pay. This attack on national pay bargaining will only help widen the pay gap across the country. Different levels of pay for the same job dependant on which region or county you are in. This drive to press ahead with regional pay will be an economic disaster for the poorest regions of the UK, cementing the North-South divide. Spending power will be drained from these areas, and siphoned off even more rapidly.

This coalition government has received no mandate for this Tory budget. Cameron’s Big Society has been left in the gutter to be replaced by his Big Capitalist Society. Sorry George but this really is a #fail

Cameron…we have a problem

This morning, David Cameron is having another go at trying to explain his Big Society. I would be lying if I said I had managed to listen to the whole thing, or even 25% – it was a few snippets here and there.

I also wonder just how this apparent ‘re-launch’ will help it take off or will he realize that it is actually “Cameron, we have a problem…”.

Over 1000 youth workers and young people came to Solihull to attend the Choose Youth Rally coordinated by the Unite union. We were all inspired by the voices of young people fighting back against the demolition of their services including Nicky Wishart, a 13 yr old boy who was ‘lifted’ out of his class by the police after they discovered that he was organising a campaign to save his local youth club…and why was this so troubling? Perhaps because it was in Cam’s home town in Witney.

Unfortunately, neither Cameron nor a representative from the Tory party was able to attend. He might have heard the passionate and extremely inspiring young people who were totally devastated about the services and resources that they enjoy disappearing across the country.

Cameron’s other baby is the National Citizens Service(NCS) and he uses this to argue the case for a greater involvement of young people in volunteering. He fails to admit that the cuts in voluntary organisations will dramatically reduce the amount of volunteering opportunities for young people.

The millions being spent on the NCS , for a five week programme during the summer holidays, would resource a 365 day youth service for a year. Cam is already bleating on about how this summer scheme is a massive success!  This is only being piloted this year with the tenders won by a number of organisations with CEO’s and trustees seemingly all a little close to Cameron’s fold…

And even though service for young people are being demolished across the length and breadth of the country…we don’t have to worry because Cam’s Big Society Bank will make sure everything is OK and the voluntary organisations will not go under even though all thier funding is being stripped away…Steve Bell sort of sums it up for me…