This was posted on a locked LJ comm that I'm a member of. tyopsqueene
the author of the post indicated that she was happy for it to be CP'd to personal journals.
So all of you will have heard more about Cameron’s “Big Society” idea again. The gist is to reduce state provision, and have the slack taken up by volunteers and community groups, with bigger stuff taken on by elected bodies (rather than non elected, e.g. Local Authorities instead of Health Authorities) and returned as much as possible to the consumer electorate or ‘individual’.
As I’ve made clear, I’m a communitarian socialist; I believe in the power of the group. I believe the state is there to enact the will of the people but also to protect minority groups from majority oppression. I believe non-elected bodies have an important role to play in that sort of protection, and also in their ability to see big pictures and long-term, both of which are things which fixed-term elected officials seem to struggle with. I hope that Ladies who fundamentally disagree with these principles will comment to say explicitly what other ideological approaches there are and why they work (not something I can do myself).
But here’s how my thought processes work, anyway.
Big Society is Bad, because
1. Squeaky Wheels Get the Grease
Because it gives more power to people like me. I am white, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied and of British nationality. I have no mental illnesses, no criminal record. I may not have gone to school with the current administration, but I snogged ‘em at the school ball, yelled at them from the cox’s seat of their rowing boats, and currently teach their children. I am the sort of person who reads the planning applications stuck to neighbourhood lampposts and then complain; I am the sort of person who writes to the local paper; I am the sort of person who knows their local MP and harasses them to do things about the issues I care about; I am the sort of person who is not intimidated by health care professionals, and get what I believe I’m entitled to; I am confident; I complain and expect to be heard.
I am the sort of person whose voice is already heard loudly enough, thanks.
The problem with relying on community groups, self-starting campaign activities and consumers individual ‘choice’ is that it generally gives strength and power to the groups that are most able to articulate their views, and who have the confidence and sense of entitlement that enables them to fight longer, use the right vocabulary, call in favours from friends, and so on. Many of the decisions which are going to be devolved are zero-sum games – in other words, when someone gains something, someone else loses. A wind farm is proposed; a local group gets together and successfully campaigns against it as it will ruin their view and reduce house prices in a lovely traditional village. Great for them. The downside is that the wind farm goes somewhere else, ruining someone else’s view, or a coal fired station gets built, ruing the future environment, or nothing gets built, so that sections of the population have to pay much higher bills for electricity and face rolling black outs. (I realise that’s a simplistic example, but you see what I’m getting at).
In some areas, particularly education and health, the ‘choice’ agenda so often ends up meaning that the richer and pushier you are, the better service you get, at the expense of other groups. Again, for example: if you allow the most ambitious (or caring) parents to take their kids out of a sink school and start their own, then the outcome of that ‘choice’ is that the children of useless, or poor, or underprivileged, or just unemployed and depressed and apathetic parents will be stuck with an increasingly difficult school, in which there are no parents with the skill sets required to fight for better teachers, better facilities, etc. There are political ideologies which say that that is just fine, and it’s not fair to remove choices from some groups in order to try to force some equity in society; that, however, is not how I think about the functioning of society.
In healthcare, let me use a
Historical case study: HIV & AIDS.
Completely awesome work was done by the first AIDS activist organisations in the 1980s. After fighting successfully to have homosexuality declassified so that it was no longer considered a psychiatric condition, similar activist groups fought damn hard for better treatment, better support, more understanding, and radical changes to the ways clinical trials were run and drugs licenced.
All good, right? Except that these groups were disproportionately white, middle-class, well educated, un-closeted young gay men. And so it was to these groups that treatment, support and political attention were directed. Which meant that provision for female sex workers, children, haemophiliacs, ethnic minorities, drug users, etc. was significantly retarded – to the point where you were more likely to survive the 1980s as a gay HIV+ man than as a straight HIV+ woman.
Intermediary groups, local authorities, government think tanks and ‘faceless pen pushing bureaucrats’ can act as a protection for the minority against the majority. How will we ensure that Big Society won’t just become a system of getting what white, middle class, educated, tory-voting, nimbys want?
2. Some things require bigger visions
The most obvious example here is the environment (although I think dozens of other topics come in here – in fact, nearly everything ought to be planned on a longer basis than a five-year election cycle…) This is a pet hobbyhorse, as my partner works for an environmental policy group and so just before Christmas this year we saw a confidential copy of Cameron’s plans which were shown to people and promptly shredded. They’ve not changed much: return power to the individual. Of course, in this case, the ‘individual’ means ‘the land owner’, when it comes to the environment. What sort of people own land – not just your garden, but thousands upon thousands of acres of it? (Clue: they’re people like me, only even posher!). Rivers do not respect county boundaries. Wetlands do not renew from degradation in one 5-year general election cycle. Sea walls next to Lord Sainsbury’s third property are not more important than those outside a small village devastated by the decline in the fishing industry (remind me again how we deal with fish stocks on a local rather than ocean-wide/EU considering basis?) Someone is getting this wind farm in their locality – shouldn’t that be the sort of thing decided by experts in climate, ecology, land management and energy policy, and not by which local village group can complain loudest?
And it’s not just in regard to the environment; we’re also (terrifyingly!) getting localism in justice, with the election of sheriffs. The major argument against that – which has been discussed elsewhere – is that the crime that is visible and makes people complain is not necessarily always the most important, pressing, or life-changing crime. We see graffiti and kids hanging around in the park. We don’t see domestic violence or income tax fraud or sex trafficking, there is a danger that in shifting to a populist system of justice we will end up undervaluing policing work in certain areas. Now, I’m aware that sounds terribly snobby and like I don’t trust people to be sensible when voting in their sherrif and considering all the options.
Well, I don’t. I think that individually we can often make smart, rational decisions, but I don’t think they are often unselfish, and that sometimes group decisions go to the lowest common denominator. In the recent survey by Local Government on what we, the ‘great British public’ wanted to cut and to protect, do you know what came out top? The one thing whose budget should not be cut? Street cleaning (with care for the elderly a close second, to be fair). Not rape crisis centres or accessibility grants for public buildings or extra help for children with special needs at school or free bus passes for the elderly or even recycling – street cleaning. That’s the thing we want to cut last, after everything else has been pared to the bone. That is what happens with lowest common denominator popularist policy. And if being horrified by that makes me a snob, chalk me up as one.
So those are two good reasons, I think; there are others but I’ll just throw in a third since it’s come up here before.
3. Women are cheap
This does rely on the ‘army of volunteer women’, which we’ve discussed here before, who need to be willing to price their time pretty cheap to get all this parent-teacher association work, magistrating, local library running and private crèche-organising done. I also think it’s a low-down dirty trick to fire thousands of public sector workers, and then expect public sector work to be done for free. Who will do this work, oh, I dunno, maybe all these unemployed people with spare time and…oh! what a coincidence, loads of experience in public sector work! What luck!
So, no, I don't want Big Society. I want expert groups of passionate environmental scientists, educationalists, disability rights activists, lawyers, doctors, nurses, public service administrators who can turn to the government and say "Listen, if you want outcome X then process Y is the best way of getting that to happen", and who can turn to the electorate and say "looking at the big picture, this is the fairest and most efficient way to do Z", and not have to worry about being ousted at the next election because they're not favouring People Like Me who complain and vote and expect to be heard.