Cameron’s “Big Society” is in democratic deficit

David Cameron’s “Big Society” is in democratic deficit. It is merely a back-door way of allowing the wealthy and educated to clean up at the expense of the poor.

Our guest writer is Sadie Smith

Saying that you are sceptical about the merits of devolving power to the people is taking a potshot at a holy cow of received political wisdom, that people are desperate to have more control over their local services. However, Cameron’s “Big Society” manifesto launch, far from striking a blow for the autonomy and choice agenda, is merely a back-door way of allowing the wealthy and educated to clean up at the expense of those of a lower social class and educational attainment.

To be fair, in theory, it all sounds so good. What is wrong, after all, with parents deciding that local schools are inadequate and starting their own? What is the problem with recognising that the state can be an inefficient provider of key services and choosing to have them administered by the voluntary sector instead? Well, there’s nothing wrong with these noble, empowering, sentiments as long as you have the people power to make them happen. The last thing any Government wants is to find that, having stormed the citadel of the Big State to many voices raised in joy, the same individuals cheering on liberation a few hours previously are moaning about having to clear up the rubble the next morning.

Cameron’s “Big Society” requires an engaged citizenry raring to take over the responsibilities of an outdated state bureaucracy. So how many people actually want to get involved in activism in their local communities? According to Cameron and the Conservatives the answer is, “Like, LOADS dude! Chuh, everyone hates politicians and community, grass roots activism is totally so Barack Obama. Facebook! Yeah!”

The actual answer, according to the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement 2009, which focused on political participation and citizenship, was “not that many, as it happens.” The independent study found that half the public do not want to be involved in decision making in their local area and over half (55 percent) do not want to be involved at a national level. Nearly half (40 percent) cite “lack of time” for not getting involved, and none of the other reasons receive a mention from more 12 percent of respondents.

The statistic that shoots a massive hole in the hull of Cameron’s manifesto on “hopey, changey stuff” is the one that deals with voting. Whilst 87 percent of those questioned thought it was “essential” or “important” to vote, only 53 percent said that they would be absolutely certain to do so. The Hansard Society comments that, “While the public has a clear view about the theory of being a good citizen – for example voting and making charitable donations – they do not actually make the leap from good intentions to positive action.”

Furthermore, the Audit found that social class was fundamental to engagement. ABs engaged more than DEs, frequently by a margin of 15 – 20 percentage points. In addition, university graduates were more likely to display higher levels of participation than their counterparts with few or no qualifications, as well as those who read a quality as opposed to popular newspaper. Unhappily for the Tory leader, this means that the saliva Cameron expended kissing Murdoch’s butt for that all-important Sun endorsement last autumn is going to deliver him very little in terms of votes and active citizens, according to the Audit’s analysis. More seriously, the demographic of – say – Sun readers without a university education and not of the AB social class are going to be the most ill-represented by Cameron’s “Big Society” proposals, in spite of the winsome page 3 stunna’s attempts to assure them otherwise.

It’s at times like this we need to ask the question: have the political class learned nothing from Foundation Hospitals? Responding to an apparent demand in the electorate to provide health care responsive to the needs of local people, the Government introduced the Foundation Hospital scheme which allows the population to vote on who sits on the hospital board according to what their healthcare priorities are. In line with the Audit’s findings, nobody really votes, much less stands for office, in these elections. Guys and St Thomas’ hospital has a potential constituency of over a million voters, but the number who actually take part can be counted in their hundreds. So hospitals now determine their priorities based on those belonging to the minority of the super-engaged and hospital staff, because most people simply do not have the time, knowledge, or technical tools that Cameron’s “Big Society” narrative assumes that everyone is in possession of.

The other downside for the Tories in the long term, and also a lesson from the Foundation Hospital debacle, is that the “Big Society” and “new localism” swiftly becomes a “postcode lottery” when an outraged mother unable to get her kid into her preferred school is interviewed by John Humphrys with the gleam of battle in his eye.

So, in an embarrassing turn of events it transpires that Dave’s “Big Society” idea is in democratic deficit before it’s even begun. Either that, or it’s merely a cunning front to empower the already powerful at the expense of those the traditional state apparatus, however imperfect, strives to protect.

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27 Responses to “Cameron’s “Big Society” is in democratic deficit”

  1. Will Straw

    Cut the BS. Sadie Smith (@smithsky1979) says Cameron's "Big Society" allows the wealthy to clean up http://bit.ly/99C3v2 (via @leftfootfwd)

  2. Fabienne

    RT @wdjstraw: Cut the BS. Sadie Smith (@smithsky1979) says Cameron's "Big Society" allows the wealthy to clean up http://bit.ly/99C3v2 ( …

  3. paulstpancras

    RT @leftfootfwd: Cameron's "Big Society" is in democratic deficit http://bit.ly/99C3v2

  4. Bill Kristol-Balls

    Radical politics radically increases the amount and intensity of political participation, but it does not (and probably ought not) break through the limits imposed on republican virtue by the inevitable pluralism of commitments, the terrible shortage of time, and the day-to-day hedonism of ordinary men and women

    Michael Walzer

    Oh for a bit of hedonism 🙁

  5. JonSHarvey

    The ambition to create an engaged citizenry who take action to add to the common wealth of £££ and social capital is a noble one. However it is one thing to wish for this – but it is, as you point out, a very different and indeed difficult thing to achieve. It seems as if there is a view from the Conservative Party and other ‘Red Tories’ that when Big Government is made to withdraw, then Big Society will, of necessity, step in to fill the vacuum. I would like to see evidence for this view.

    Although, you do highlight evidence from Foundation Hospitals that there will be a democratic deficit, may I suggest that this is only part of the issue.

    I have no doubt that many people will not have bothered with Foundation hospitals since most people know – with or without higher education – that the actual room for manoeuvre between evidence based clinical practice, existing government targets, ethical concerns about equity & fairness and resource constraints is very small. In other words ‘why bother?’ when there is not much to make decisions about – really…

    But perhaps Big Society is about something more as well. Could it be, should it be, about ending the crass idea that citizens are merely ‘customers’ or ‘consumers’ of public services. I argue that the relationship between public services and the clients / users / citizens / patients / offenders / witnesses / claimants / taxpayers (etc etc etc) that they serve is far more complex than that. For too long (and I attribute much of this to Blairism too) successive governments have super imposed this one way commercial transactional model onto the public services and invented a whole monolithic & inappropriate set of structures around customers / purchasers / providers etc. (It is as if one ugly sister managed to force her foot into the glass slipper.)

    In this respect – I think there is a worthy ambition underpinning the Big Society idea. Let’s stop treating citizens as merely passive consumers of public services. Instead, let’s start treating all citizens with respect and find the bold & radical ways to engage, inform, enable, empower, educate and inspire people from all social classes to carry on or become active citizens, taking action that has been shown to make a difference (evidence based citizenship if you like, but it’s an awkward phrase)

    There is a vision here that both the left and right might be able to agree upon. Perhaps…

    However, I am also clear that the Big Society cannot be empty rhetoric or window dressing for public service cutbacks. If we have evolved into a passive society where there is this ‘dependency culture’, the way out of this will need to be developed not imposed.

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