First the halcyon promise. We sort of elect a Coalition government on the basis that talking to each other is better than shouting across the debating chamber. We then get a process where megaphone politics takes over from spin – that is to say, the blunderbuss takes over from the scalpel (here, here, here, here and here).
The consequences of this scattergun approach cannot be underestimated. In our household, we are now pretty much running scared as my wife – who is a language assistant in several schools after seven years of hard work and long nights getting there – now faces a dramatic drop in her income with the new freedoms this interventionist government is giving to schools in order that they may impose minimum wages on their support staff. For paradoxically, this is what we getting. After thirteen years of New Labour, where cautious attempts to link the interests of the private sector with the public bore a curious and sometimes curate’s egg of a fruit (you will permit me this mixed metaphor I hope whilst I attempt with difficulty to understand what is happening here), we now have one of the most interfering governments in history where the only interests that matter are those of business.
Light touch regulation? Absolutely not. Not for the ordinary people, anyhow. An absence of regulation for those higher up the tree and that freedom they may soon enjoy to pay a minimum of taxes will lead to far more paperwork and unhappiness lower down as means-testing, private health insurance and a whole host of other highly bureaucratised measures begin to bite.
This is not the inclusive society we were looking for all this time. Whilst there was a delicate balance between the devil Blair and his folk chose to sup with and the poorer in society, the devil kind of paid a sort of lip service to community action, corporate social responsibility and that wider set of kindnesses that at least people like myself understand to be the moral obligation attached to having more. But when you get welfare ministers who live like this, the floodgates which hold back manifestly immoral and wildly hypocritical behaviours – floodgates which used to make even the most thoughtless think twice – are suddenly opened for all and sundry to do what all and sundry must.
Anything now goes under this government. Any thought, any ideal, any act, any stupidity.
An interventionist government of a most unhappy kind – and one of the clearest examples of carefully thought-out Tory statecraft we can remember.
One of the most bloody-minded too.
So in the face of such statecraft, what can we do? Simply remember the good times and bemoan their passing? Extract from our mix of successes and failures those bits that deserve to return and try and convince ourselves that’s all we need to do? Or rethink entirely the situation the British people find themselves in?
For ideas such as the Big Society do need to be thought, even as we recognise the Tories are thinking them to confuse and distract.
We need to think them too, but not as a strategy to destroy the state. No one should want that, least of all the Tories’ supporters in the City. I wrote in an earlier post that big business depends on its ability to externalise onto the taxpayers those costs it would prefer not to suffer in order that it may pay to its shareholders those dividends they would prefer not to go without. Big business, if it has any nous at all, will one day realise – though by then its extreme tendency to short-termism may mean it will possibly be too late – that it can’t do without a powerful state either.
No. When I say we need the conceptual figure of a Big Society, what I’m getting at is that it provides us with a metaphor we can work on and which could lead to the better involvement of a wider society at decision-making time – that is to say, more meaningfully along the process than simple and perfunctory consultation generally presupposes at the moment.
Through the generation of new ideas and their canny implementation by people who know what they’re talking about, many previously insoluble problems have become solvable.
But only by empowering the people who know, the people who actually do the jobs in question, can we avoid the mistakes of the high-level fanatics who so love to read executive summaries and ignore the danger signs.
We must also believe that cost controls do not necessarily have to stifle a liberating capacity for innovation. The way this government is imposing such controls is brutal, frightening, will increase levels of mental ill health amongst a broad swathe of the public and will inevitably throw more people out of work than a more considered approach would have achieved. But it is possible – if we choose to meet and work with the like-minded over the next four years – that we can prepare the ground for the return one day of a different kind of state built, precisely I might add, on the back of such ferocious controls. That is to say, a more responsive kind – a real servant of the people rather than the kind which fashions and then proceeds to service its own interests.
We may one day be able to work smarter without having to work harder.
I could even find myself signing up to the Big Society right now if I didn’t believe it just embraced a medium-term plan to divert more resources into the pockets of the Tory Party’s supporters. Which is a pity really. Because, deep down, I believe in the integrity of the vast majority of people in big business.
When, that is, the temptation to act otherwise isn’t allowed to balloon out of all proportion.
As a counterpoint to such thoughts, we get a call for ideas over at Labour Uncut. I don’t like the assumption that foot soldiers and leaflet fodder have their place, mind. In the world of ideas generation, everyone is equal. If we haven’t learnt that lesson by now, we will never ever learn it.
If foot soldiering and leaflet delivery is a necessary part of modern politics, let everyone play their part as they would wish to do so and are capable of. A volunteer organisation, which is what the Labour Party really is, cannot organise its people on the basis of treating them as cogs in the machinery of some gigantic corporate body.
You cannot force volunteers to do what you want them to do. You can coax, you can persuade – but in the end, far more importantly, you must appreciate and assess them, you must support and understand them. You must take their skillsets as they themselves present them to you – not see through the prism of your own needs a reality which does not fairly exist.
And you must be prepared to make your organisation out of their image, not impose the image you would prefer on them.
Even so, and despite some of my reservations in relation to what our leaders really think of leaflet fodder and foot soldiers, the article is definitely worth a read.
A busy Sunday of sifting and filtering then.
I hope, one day, we can look to the future with more hope than despair.
And also as a single nation – even when of plural interests.