If the big society is on its way, as David Cameron warns, then this is one more reason why breaking the ConDem government must be the goal of national anti-cuts campaigns.
If Cameron had any contact with ordinary people, he would know that most of us are not debating the big society. We are post-debate. It would be one thing if there were some public consensus around it; if it could just be tweaked here and there or if it was just a question of time before the practicalities could work themselves out. But this is not where we are.
The vast majority of the public have already made the link between the dismantling of public services and the new prominence placed on volunteering and participation. They have already understood that the big society is an attempt to conceal the biggest spending cuts in almost a century. That Cameron disagrees with this fact will not make it go away.
Yesterday was the third launch of the big society in less than a year. Yet poll after poll indicates that the public simply aren’t convinced. A recent ComRes poll showed that 41 percent believe the big society is a cover for spending cuts. According to a Third Sector poll conducted in October 2010, within the voluntary sector itself, 60 percent of respondents believe public spending cuts are the biggest barrier to achieving the big society. Last week, after a live TV debate, 80 percent of the audience said they disagreed with the big society.
While there is consensus amongst politicians about privatising public services, most of the public is unimpressed. An Institute for Public Policy Research study in November 2010 showed that 90 percent believed the state should be primarily responsible for providing public services. The study also cited a “lack of time” as a major barrier to the big society. So who will be doing all this volunteering? The super-rich? Surveys show that only 8 percent of ConDem MPs do any voluntary work. An FT poll revealed that only a quarter of people agree that they should have to give up their time to support public services.
Cameron’s own policies are going to make this worse. If people have to work harder because of cutbacks and inflation, then running the local post office, park or playground is out of the question.
But apart from that, most people don’t want to own the local library, park or post office. They want to use these services, they want investments made in them and they want them to be run for the benefit of communities, not for the profit of this or that business or individual.
Cameron argues that the big society is about empowering people. The truth is it’s about opening up the public sector to private companies and charities. Neither is remotely accountable. Council administrations can be voted out if they fail to deliver, but private businesses have no element of democracy. Yet big society plans include libraries in at least eight local authorities to be run by US firms. Charities, also set to become major service providers, will still only capture a fraction of government contracts. Yet they are no more accountable than businesses.
Cameron has turned reality on its head when he says this is about “taking control of our destinies” or creating a more responsible society. This is irresponsibility: in Cameron World the only thing that government needs to take responsibility for is reducing the deficit - by any means necessary. This includes making the poorest in society pay for bank bailouts.
No matter how Cameron spins it, what is clear is that he has presented us with a choice: either bank bailouts or public services; either me and my cabinet of millionaires, or us, the vast majority.
The thousands of people who have been protesting outside their local libraries and local councils are not taken in by the big society blather. Re-launching the idea over and over is not going to persuade the public. The big society is a failure because everybody knows that spending cuts are at its heart.
But there is a risk of being drawn into the localism that pervades the whole debate: that local campaigns run out of steam when councils insist they have no money. That’s why a united, national campaign against the cuts is so crucial - one that turns the focus against the government and argues against all cuts. Forget the big society then; we need to look at the bigger picture. Austerity measures are being imposed centrally. The real debate is how to fight the cuts in the most effective way, and how local and national campaigns can be connected in a way that ensures not only the end of the big society but the end of the ConDem government.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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