It’s no surprise that Liverpool City Council has pulled out as one of the government’s ‘vanguard communities’ for the Big Society. The city faces huge cuts and many of those cuts will have a big impact on projects that could be described as furthering the big society, and not only in the voluntary sector. For the government to accuse Liverpool of pulling a political stunt shows how crude their spin machine has become.
Despite some elaborate language and a smattering of half-decent projects, the Tory concept of the Big Society is floundering because it has become a subterfuge for devolving and diverting blame for the cuts. Its key themes – empowering individuals and communities, encouraging social responsibility, creating an enabling and accountable state, and, more controversially, public sector reform – often sound ok but when thay are twisted to fit Tory ideology and deliver Tory policies they have little to do with the Big Society and a lot to do with the Small State and deficit reduction.
Insofar as it means anything at all, the Big Society should be natural territory for the left and for Labour. It is not necessary to have a ‘Small State’ as a precondition for a Big Society, indeed public spending is the essential underpinning. As Labour’s policy reviews get under way, it will be a good thing if many of the new policies that emerge have a clear focus on building stronger individual rights, stronger communities and stronger local government. Labour’s politics should welcome and encourage a flourishing civil society in all its forms, even if it sometimes makes life harder for Labour politicians.
The Big Society is a new presentation, recycled and rebadged, of age-old ideas. Community action in its various guises, community control of buildings, tenant participation and control, mutualism, community involvement in local decisions, these are all natural elements of progressive left politics.
Tenants and Residents Associations are perhaps the best example in housing, and they have been a feature of the landscape for a century or more. Often with no resources at all to speak of, they organise and promote projects of all shapes and sizes to match community needs and interests, ranging from social activities to youth projects to festivals to advice surgeries to crime reduction to befriending schemes to consultations on council policies to managing buildings to managing housing estates. They are the front line in holding landlords to account. The list is endless, as is the commitment of the people involved. An effective TRA can make the difference between an estate failing and it being a place where people want to live. TRAs demonstrate the ability and potential of ordinary people to achieve things and put the lie to the negative and stigmatising media image of social tenants.
The reality of this government’s approach to the Big Society is exemplified by its decision to strangle the National Tenant Voice at birth immediately after the Election. Seen by the Labour Government as the third arm of the new architecture for social housing (together with the investor, the Homes and Communities Agency, and the regulator, the Tenant Services Authority) the NTV was fashioned by the existing national representative tenant organisations not only to organise tenant self-advocacy at a national level but also to provide support and encouragement to the many thousands of TRAs and individual tenants who struggle in isolation to improve their communities.
The NTV would have cost less than two pence a year for everyone living in social housing but its Big Society impact would have been enormous. Closing it down shows that saving a few pence means more to the government than all the rhetoric.