Tuesday, 20 July 2010

What's the big thinking behind The Big Society?

“You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.” David Cameron, Liverpool, 19th July 2010.

Well, I call it the biggest steaming pile of political horse manure ever to be dumped on the British people since John Major launched his ‘back to basics’ campaign in the early 1990s. If the ‘Big Society’ were genuinely an important departure in social policy and political culture, the speech would provide some kind of coherent intellectual backdrop, right? If this new initiative were about to be piloted in a number of local authorities around the UK, there would surely be plenty of detail to grapple with?

Let’s take a look at what Cameron actually said about his Big Society.

“It’s about people setting up great new schools. Businesses helping people getting trained for work. Charities working to rehabilitate offenders.”

We can take the first idea as a reference to Michael Gove’s madcap scheme to let do-gooders and wackos set up so-called ‘free schools’. Some of these schools may indeed turn out to be ‘great’. Others, I imagine will turn out to be bloody awful. Remember, in theory, anyone is allowed to set one up. They don’t need any experience of education and are not obliged to teach a curriculum that most people would recognise as being mainstream. As parents, we’ll probably have no meaningful way of judging the performance of one school over another any more. It will be like comparing Conservative blueberrries with Lib Dem oranges.

As for the second and third ideas about businesses and charities, I don’t see anything here that doesn’t already exist. I used to sit on the board of a charity that has been helping for years to rehabilitate offenders in conjunction with other partners in the statutory and voluntary sectors. Businesses have been actively involved in getting people back into the workforce for some time too. There have even been documentaries on the telly about it.

So far, so meaningless.

Next comes a marvellous piece of political doublespeak from Cameron:

“For years, there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre, from Westminster. But this just doesn’t work. We’ve got the biggest budget deficit in the G20.”

Err, excuse me? Do we really have the biggest budget deficit in the G20 because of too much government? No. We have the biggest budget deficit in the G20 because governments – Tory and Labour alike – were too pathetic in their regulation of the banking system. This led to a massive state-funded bailout of the financial institutions in the wake of the financial crisis. We are paying now for the inadequacies of the state, rather than experiencing the consequences of its excessive interference.

These excerpts of Cameron’s speech pretty much sum up the standard of intellectual debate which underlie his grand vision. I can’t see anything here that an averagely bright GCSE sociology student couldn’t pick apart in the period after double maths.

Happy that he’s covered all bases at a theoretical level, Cameron then moves on to discuss the practicalities. He admits there is ‘no one lever’ that we can pull to create The Big Society and suggests ‘three strands’ of activity. The first one is ‘social action’.

“The success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people – on them giving their time, effort, even money, to causes around them. So government cannot remain neutral on that – it must foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action.”

The idea of people giving time and money on a voluntary basis is not new. It’s called charity. My feeling is that the only people rallying to this particular cause will be the ones who already do. And unless government fosters and supports the culture of voluntarism with cash, we have absolutely nothing that doesn’t already exist. My wife works for a charity which receives money from a council to deliver a vital service to the public at a local level. Almost certainly, there will be less money for these organisations to play with in the future rather than more.

The second strand of the Big Society is ‘public service reform’. Getting rid of centralised bureaucracy, giving professionals more freedom, letting charities run public services. I’ve heard it all a million times before. It will either turn out to be bluster or it will descend into anarchy. (We’ve already had a taste of this agenda with the proposed abolition of Primary Care Trusts and the handing of power to professional GPs. Because family doctors can’t manage budgets while also telling people to drink plenty of fluids and take paracetamol, they’ll end up forming consortia to run and commission services. In effect, they’ll recreate the PCTs but in a confused and incoherent form.)

It’s on his third strand – ‘community empowerment’ - that Cameron really gets into his stride. He manages one sentence. He tells us that we need communities with ‘oomph’. It’s a word that starts with two round zeros and manages to convey a third, which I guess sits between the Eton-educated Prime Minister’s ears.

From then on, the speech deteriorates into an incoherent ramble which involves Grange Hill’s Phil Redmond, people running their own bus routes and taking over local pubs. Given that pubs are in private ownership anyway, they hardly represent the big government that Cameron and his Lib Dem cronies seemingly despise. But then nothing really has to make sense when you’re making things up as you go along. As Cameron himself concludes:

“It’s about pushing power down and seeing what happens. It’s about unearthing the problems as they come up on the ground and seeing how we can get round them. It’s about holding our hands up saying we haven’t got all the answers – let’s work them out, together.”

In boom times, it would be comical. In our world of austerity, God only knows where it’s all going to lead.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Lib Dems have made their bed and they'll have to die in it.

If you’d asked me a month ago how long the ConDem coalition would survive in government, I’d reluctantly have conceded maybe two or three years. Both David Cameron and his partner in crime – the puffed-up popinjay Nick Clegg – have invested all their personal credibility in this bizarre political project. They therefore can’t afford for it to fail and will both do their upmost to ensure its survival. The problem is that the government’s pronouncements are becoming more extraordinary by the day and the contradictions inherent within the coalition are causing strains even in this honeymoon period. My hunch, therefore, is that it will end in tears rather sooner than I’d first imagined. A quickie divorce after a year or eighteen months perhaps.

The issue of criminal justice creates one of their biggest pickles. Ken Clarke, that ‘wet’ Europhile relic from a bygone era, has found himself in charge of prisons and he seems to have decided unilaterally that the slammer doesn’t work. This will please his Lib Dem coalition partners no end, as they have form as long as your arm when it comes to making the penal system less frightening to its prospective customers. Out in the Tory heartland, however, loyal supporters are fuming. They already think that a spell of bird is like taking a trip to Butlins. Now, the Redcoats are escorting their happy campers back home. The Daily Mail, which serves as a Delphic oracle to the Conservatives’ aged membership in the shires, actually resorted to asking the former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw to lambast the Clarke for his muddled thinking. Now, that’s what we might call a serious turn up for the books.

In itself, letting some criminals out of the Scrubs slightly earlier wouldn’t lead to the end of civilisation as we know it. But Theresa May, the current Home Secretary, was very recently announcing drastic cuts to police budgets, so anyone who comes out of prison and wants to reoffend will just love the new-look ConDem Britain.

Immigration is another tricky area. Nick Clegg went into the presidential election debates advocating an amnesty for people who were in the country illegally. This intellectually plausible but politically suicidal policy was probably one of the big reasons that his vote dipped significantly in the final stages of the campaign. Now the plan has been dumped in favour of the Tories’ politically plausible but intellectually nonsensical policy of ‘caps’ on the number of immigrants from outside the EU.

The business community within the Tory Party is twitchy as it knows that free movement of labour is essential in a modern capitalist society. We rely on semi-skilled people to do the jobs that British folk are unwilling to do and we depend on highly skilled specialists to maintain our world standards in a number of fields. Out in the constituencies, however, many Tory MPs need to take a tough stance on immigration to assuage public opinion. It’s an impossible balancing act for the Tories at the best of times, but as part of a coalition, it’s doubly problematic.

Things are made all the more ridiculous by the fact that a large proportion of immigration is completely unstoppable because it comes from within the European Union. Short of tearing up the European treaties we’ve signed – or waiting for the complete implosion of the community – we’ll be accepting visitors for ever more. I expect there a quite a few people thinking of heading here from Greece, for instance, right now.

So crime is a muddle and migration is a real headache. It’s time to throw another grenade into the coalition camp – one that’s labelled electoral reform. A referendum next year will see David Cameron in direct confrontation with his Lib Dem buddies as he argues against any change to the current system. The alternative vote, a pretty innocuous and not particularly proportional way of electing MPs, is too radical for the Tory champion of the ‘Big Society’. Unfortunately, it’s not radical enough for thousands of Lib Dem activists, who believe in a geek’s system called Single Transferable Vote, which involves constituencies with multiple MPs and requires the use of equations during the count. These Lib Dems will realise exactly what a hollow concession they have been handed by the Conservatives when their Coalition buddies join forces with reactionary elements of the Labour Party to oppose any change. If you were a pro-reform Lib Dem, why would you even bother to lift a finger in a campaign for a half-baked solution, when it looks extremely likely the cards are stacked against you?

All of this is seems very bad for Nick and Dave. But we haven’t even addressed the central question facing us all: the deficit and the proposed ConDem cuts. Up until now, the Lib Dem lapdogs have quite happily done a lot of the Conservatives’ dirty work for them. They are certainly in the whole sorry mess up to their necks. So when their Tory masters start demanding plans for 40% cuts from various government departments – a policy described by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development’s Chief Economist as an ‘armageddon scenario’ – they can no more extract themselves from the madness than a dummy can remove itself from the hand of its ventriloquist.

Many Lib Dem MPs are sick to their stomachs, but they have made their political bed and they will have to lie in it. Eventually, we can be sure that they will die in it too. Over the course of the next six months the full scale of the cuts will become apparent and the popularity of the ConDem government partners will start to slide. As the cuts actually begin to bite, people start to lose their jobs and the faltering economy begins to splutter to a halt once again, there will be a full-blown panic. Cameron and Osborne will no doubt cling to the dubious figures of the Office for Budget Responsibility, which apparently believes that the private sector will create more jobs over the next few years of austerity than it did in the last boom. This economic gobbledegook will soon be exposed for what it is and there won’t be many places to hide. Open splits will emerge within the Lib Dems and even some stalwarts of the Tory heartlands may decide that they have their doubts. Particularly if their pensions and benefits are eroded and their businesses choked by the recessionary impact of the cuts.

The senior economics commentator of The Observer, William Keegan, has described the policies being pursued by the Tories as “Margaret Thatcher’s Economic Experiment Part Two”. He is absolutely right. But as Karl Marx famously observed in The Eighteenth Brumaire, the great events of history do have a habit of occurring twice. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.