Big society versus the coalition government

My view of the Big Society does include volunteering. So they are going to stop picking up litter? Good – I think it’s a scandal that taxes should go, without a word of protest, and as if it were inevitable, to picking up after other people’s parlous neglect. I voluntarily confront people who drop litter, get angry about it, and pick it up where I find it. The latest developments will somewhat strengthen my harangue.

Other than that, on the Big Society I can’t put it better than Bob:

“I have some sympathy for some of the philosophies in the “Big Society” mix; I believe in a small state, self-help, mutual aid, decentralisation and active citizenship.”

and Nick Cohen:

“Local charities had already done what Conservatives and Liberals want them to do and formed a campaign group, Islington Giving, to raise money and volunteers to fill the gaps left by the shrinking state. After writing a few press releases – as I said, my contribution was shamefully small – I have learned that there is little point in leftists denigrating volunteers, particularly if they are scoffing at those who are more willing than they are to give money and time to others.”

Qualified by (Bob):

“BigSoc ideologues like David Willetts and Phillip Blonde talk eloquently of exactly the kind of thick civic culture that I refer to in this post. But I remain unconvinced that the Big Society in reality is anything more than an alibi for fiscal ultra-conservatism, or that Cameron’s attempts to imagine it into existence will do anything to mitigate the social devastation that is already being caused by his government’s slash and burn social policies.”

and (Nick Cohen):

“Public-school conservatives are in power, however, not the left, and their prejudices matter more. I accept David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith are not members of a conspiracy of plutocrats but well-meaning men, who look at the billions spent to keep millions in idleness and wish to reform the system. The trouble is that they do not understand how the system mistreats the poor and inarticulate. Inadvertently or not, they are ensuring that the law will not hear their appeals when they protest against injustice.”

And The Observer’s leaked council document, which reveals a new regime of bare statutory minimum.

If I’m to be part of a Big Society, then it is in opposition to the coalition government.

My view of the Big Society doesn’t include asking for reward points to redeem at Tesco.

It has a view of the education of the individual as a social good. Matt points out that the coalition’s Free Schools are a two fingers up to the Big Society’s message that “we’re all in this together”. My Big Society supports a mass higher education and understands that society is a main beneficiary, alongside the individual students. This is why my Big Society’s government views university teaching, including in  arts, humanities and social sciences, as a £3.5bn+ investment well spent, and why the measure of acceptability for the planned huge increase in fees will be increased participation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the squeezed middle, greater student satisfaction, and academic achievement. But HEPI’s analysis of the Browne Review cautions that there is no market research underpinning the review and that “efficiency savings” is likely to mean even worse student:staff ratios (England is one of the worse OECD countries) and fewer resources to go round, making it hard to compete for students and leading to a spiral of decline. HEPI also points out that quality and strong market position do not necessarily have anything to do with each other:

“…the apparent absence of any recognition of public interest in the health and well-being of those universities that may not thrive in the marketplace is to be regretted. Universities are part of the national infrastructure, and it is in the interests of the country and the responsibility of the government of the day to ensure that universities at all levels of excellence thrive.”

HEPI also point out that latent demand for higher education is far greater than the extra 10,000 places a year for three years recommended by the Browne Review, and that the review has omitted to factor in calculations about how much it will cost to resource the loans required – a public subsidy.

Come on UCU, come on HEPI – some good and excellent criticism but where are the alternative models for student and university finance?

My Big Society refuses to have our attention diverted by a few instances of gross inequity in the welfare system even as we act to end them:

“First, by focusing on the claimants, we deflect attention away from those who profit from their claims. Thus my earlier statement that there are 139 families to whom we are paying over £50,000 in rent a year was an inaccurate one: they hand that rent over to private landlords, and it is the private landlords we are actually subsidising. The housing benefit system drives the most unscrupulous landlords (and unscrupulous people, in my experience, seem to me disproportionately represented in the population of landlords) to charge the highest rents they can get away with, and more to the point the current scale is based on a market rate that is grossly inflated by property speculators, corporate landlords and all the other afflictions that have made London’s housing situation so unjust in the last couple of decades. If housing benefit reform will exacerbate social cleansing from inner London, it will only intensify what the market is already doing.”

Instead it involves regulating rents – for pete’s sake the capital city of the ultimate capitalist state has rent control – based on the landlord’s mortgage, and removing any tax breaks for second properties. Shelter is good (specific, evidenced) on building more affordable homes, as well as on reforming the rental market. The Green Party’s housing policy is one of the things I like about them.

My Big Society campaigns for changes in the law so that, for example, we are not relying on the good will of our sinfully rich but nevertheless law-abiding Conservative chancellor George Osborne to pay what should be his tax dues but currently, undeniably, are not. David Mitchell is understandable frustrated with 38 Degrees:

“Does 38 Degrees really want this to become a country where politicians, as well as being scandalously underpaid considering the importance of their jobs, are expected to pay more tax than the law requires? Should we all be chipping in a bit more if we think we can afford it – treating the Treasury like a charity? Is that its vision of liberalism? Like a “pay what you can” night at the theatre, the more generous and generous-spirited, the caring, the giving, will feel the pressure to pay more – it would be a tax on qualms, on social conscience. What a brilliant scheme for finally, irrevocably, impoverishing the left.

George Osborne doesn’t “think it’s OK to have one rule for him and his friends and another rule for everybody else”. He knows he can’t get away with that. What he thinks is OK, and what the petition should really address, is how that one rule, which applies to all of us, is so much more beneficial to him and his friends – to the rich – than to everybody else.

The rules are universal but unfair. They allow the rich to avoid tax without having to evade it and Osborne, as chancellor, is responsible. We should be protesting about this, not that he’s keeping as much of his own money as the law currently permits. If it helped focus his mind on a wholesale reform of the taxation system, I’d happily let him off tax altogether, make it a perk of the job. I don’t care about his £1.6m. I care about the billions being lost through the same loophole.”

My Big Society involves people from all walks of life, like the City lawyers Nick Cohen noticed, protecting vulnerable disadvantaged people from government contractors like Atos Origin – another scandal, Islington Law Centre has a 80% success rate on appeals against incapacity benefits declined on the basis of Atos Origin’s medicals.

Although my Big Society doesn’t really understand economics and has to explain quantitative easing to itself time after time, it is persuaded by an alternative budget to the one the coalition government proposes, which – in contrast to Chancellor George Osborne’s plans – has a 65:35 ratio of cuts to tax increases, seeks to eliminate the deficit in 6, rather than 4, years, which maintains but taxes universal benefits to both give everybody a stake in the benefits system but acknowledge inequality, and which understands capital investment on transport and housing as an investment in a future economy, and a better kind of borrowing than the borrowing required simply to finance a deficit.

And – most importantly, and which is much harder, and which I haven’t cracked yet myself – my Big Society refuses to settle for miserable griping, or even criticism, necessary as it is, but pushes beyond pointing out what’s wrong to conceive or find, and campaign for, specific alternatives which are underpinned by principles for a fair and real world.

My Big Society is in dire need of something to coalesce around, and awaits with anticipation False Economies, a resource from The Other TaxPayers’ Alliance which pledges to challenge Osbornomics.

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One thought on “Big society versus the coalition government

  1. Pingback: Useless New Labour, the Tories And Workfare. « ModernityBlog

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