'Big Society' or 'Back to the Future'…?

Victorian era tea by Thiophene_Guy

Victorian era tea by Thiophene_Guy

Well, the manifestos are published and everyone seems to be pushing ‘fairness’ and ‘change’. None more so than the Conservatives and they have unveiled their grand vision of the future: Big Society. This seems to be superficially about empowerment of local people, reducing tax burdens and getting the populous more involved in society and government. Lift the lid, however, and therein lurks the same old Tory party. Change, yes, but not necessarily change for the better…

Setup your own school

Their plan for improving schools is to allow people to setup their own schools using government funding. Great idea in principle, it seems, but what about the practicality of this?

Well, in areas where there are struggling schools, there are unlikely to be the necessary skills and resources to go about setting up new schools. All that will happen is those able to help themselves will do so, diverting funding away from the less privileged which is arguably where it needs to be directed if we are to equalise opportunities for children and young adults. Many of the public schools in this country originated as schools set up by those who could afford education for their children at a time when there was no state provision; so are the Tories looking to replicate this historical episode but this time creating a new set of elitist public schools using government funding…? If they were in any way serious about improving outcomes across the board and not just for the lucky few, they would look to bringing back quality vocational paths and meritocratic higher education rather than allowing some parents to create new schools and further increasing social division.

Control you own police force

Another part of the policy is to make police forces accountable to elected representatives. The idea being that this will make the police more directly accountable to the communities they serve. Again, sounds like change and on the face of it, could be for the better. Until we lift the lid…

Firstly, our police are accountable to the panels of people to whom they must answer, panels which include elected representatives. Importantly, these panels include non-elected specialists who are not at the beck and call of the general public. If policing policy is entirely populist, responding to the current whims of anyone or any group with an axe to grind, then long term strategy will be replaced by knee jerk policing where one priority is replaced by another priority, and all the essential behind the scenes work that police do will be diminished in favour of the latest high profile crime: As priorities are constantly juggled according to the flavour of the month, everything will ultimately become a priority, hence nothing becomes a priority.

I’m all in favour of community interaction and simply having community officers known to the community and capable of reporting and responding to community needs fulfills an important role, but to put elected officials in direct control of policing rather than leaving it to senior police officers and their specialist advisors is to invite longer term problems.

Get involved!

Community involvement is a central tenet of the Big Society and again, the spin put on this is all about empowerment, reducing top-down government and rebuilding a functional society. All good aspirational notions. But once again, the reality lurking beneath is very different…

Volunteer work is undoubtedly a good thing; it is good for social cohesion and gets things done that otherwise would not get done. More of this is undeniably good. However, when talk of this is combined with cuts to local government services, it is plain to see that the plan here for cutting government spending relies on getting the public to do things which are currently the job of local government. Many support structures, facilities and services already depend on volunteer contributions but cannot survive without some contribution from government. And to expect the individual members of society to undertake a broader range of activities necessary to support society is a retrograde step; remember, the reason we have local government is so that it can manage on our behalf the things we expect to be done communally. In other words, this increase in volunteer contributions is nothing more than a cynical ploy to make it possible to make cuts in government with charities and volunteer organisations being expected to pick up the strain .

The National Health Service

The Conservatives are now apparently the party of the National Health Service. This seems like a dramatic change of policy given the years of underfunding and attempts to dismantle via privatisation experienced throughout the last Conservative government. Enough said.

Big Society or Big Con…?

So, overall, this push for change from the Conservatives is just wrapping for the same old bigoted, outdated policies which favour the rich and those able to take advantage of the policies on offer. Unfortunately, whilst the wrapping is superficially attractive, there will be dire consequences for many groups in society. Yes, some people will benefit, but these policies will do nothing to increase social cohesion or help to improve British politics. This is Cameron trying to do a Tony Blair / New Labour style shift towards the centre but without actually moving away from the very traditional right wing stance which is essential to maintain the Conservative power base. Interestingly, this style is apparently very popular with a number of young people; I can only assume that this is in part due to the years of the last Conservative government being history for them rather than a vivid memory of mass unemployment, the decimation of our social housing infrastructure , education for the rich through the abolition of student grants and lack of funding for state schools, the erosion of quality NHS provision and bubbles of inflation which led to incredible interest rates; all this coupled with incredible profits for the few and the start of the burgeoning gap in between the poor and the super rich.

I for one wait with trepidation…