Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Night time is the right time for volunteering in the Big Society

Sheena Easton summed it up perfectly in her 1980 classic ‘9 to 5’ (or ‘Morning Train’ in the US to avoid confusion with the popular Dolly Parton number). In a stirring paean to work-life balance at the beginning of the Thatcher era, the songstress tells us that her beau ‘works all day to earn his pay, so we can play all night...’

One of the biggest problems with David Cameron’s so-called ‘Big Society’ is that it requires people to work all day to earn their pay and then work all night for nothing. An added complication is that Sheena’s lover would now be labouring from 9 to 8, rather than 9 to 5. He’d probably also have to catch up on a few emails of a weekend. What a way to make a living, as Dolly would no doubt observe from her Tennessee mountain home.

We can see that the ‘Big Society’ is an idea that might have taken root in a bygone age when people had steady, predictable jobs and could give up a few hours of their spare time to a good cause in the local community. At a point in history when women were more likely to stay at home, maybe the ones with well-to-do husbands would get involved in charity work to ease the drudgery of domesticity and childcare. But look at how we live today. Men and women alike find themselves in transient jobs, multiple jobs, part-time jobs. They are always on call, working even when they’re technically supposed not to be. And let’s face it, women have it worse, because they may well still end up doing the vast majority of cleaning, cooking and nappy changing.

I write as someone who has done a lot of voluntary work over the years. In my teens and twenties, I was heavily involved in political parties and campaigning organisations, largely at the expense of a normal social life. For relatively short periods, I sat on the board of a charity and was governor of a further education college, neither of which were paid. I’ve even done voluntary work at 2 o’clock in the morning as an Independent Custody Visitor, responsible for checking up on the welfare of detainees in London police stations. Anti-social hours went with the role because if independent inspectors were to arrive at predictable times, it rather defeats the object of the exercise.

Right now, I’d be reluctant to do any of these things. I run my own small business and can work the equivalent of six days a week quite easily. Any time I take out for David Cameron’s Big Society will inevitably be at the further expense of my wife and kids. And that, in my view, would be a big mistake.

So who can actually make the Tory-led coaltion’s Big Society idea work? There are only two groups of people that qualify. The first comprises those well-meaning, under-employed busybodies of the Hyacinth Bucket variety. Trouble is, they’re already doing voluntary work, so aren’t an untapped source of labour. And while they might step in to run a community library that’s being closed in the barrage of cuts, they’re unlikely to want to help someone to the toilet in a local care home when the budget for care assistants is slashed.

The second group is the unemployed. Figures out today show that youth unemployment is higher than it’s ever been, with a fifth of 16-24 year-olds out of work in the UK. I suspect that this the true conscript army Cameron intends to deploy in defence of the Big Society. The jobless will be forced to do unpaid work in exchange for their benefits and take the place of people who were previously paid. Instead of offering minimum wage to someone from the Philippines to work in the social care sector, we’ll use youngsters from Fazakerley and Finsbury Park instead and we’ll let them survive on benefits. There will be no prospect of progression to a real job. In this respect, Cameron and Clegg are pushing through a structural change in our society more profound and disturbing than anything managed by Margaret Thatcher in the days when Sheena Easton topped the charts.

Yet, strangely, the one thing that really strikes me about the Big Society rhetoric is that it lacks any intellectual ballast. Politicians obviously simplify ideas for public consumption, but these soundbites are often the expression of some kind of underlying philosophy. Thatcher, for all her faults, was an avowed free-market monetarist, inspired by the theories of Hayek and Friedman. Blair was a born-again social democrat and communitarian. You can read books on that kind of stuff too, if you’re so inclined. (I might even still have something by Amitai Etzioni somewhere in my garage.) ‘Big Society’, however, is just a pile of horse manure dumped on a road marked out by cones kindly left by that woeful footnote in British political history, John Major. You’ll remember that Major talked a lot about getting ‘back to basics’. Spend as long as you like in a university library and you won’t find a ‘basics’ section. It was a vacuous idea dreamt up for a government which had no notion of where it was going and a Prime Minister who appeared to have had his charisma drained in an unfortunate hospital mix-up.

Cameron says he doesn’t care if people don’t understand his Big Society. My feeling is that people understand perfectly and they can see right through it. On the other side, there’s a glimpse of what the UK will be like in five years time. Government services slashed. Charities told to pick up the pieces, but lacking the funds to do so. And a band of unwilling ‘volunteers’ – disproportionately young – sent in to fill the gaps.