The Big Society has its limits. Only the state can really redistribute wealth to lift people out of poverty, argues Labour MP Kate Green.
Shadow communities and local government minister Gordon Marsden yesterday told a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference that the ‘Big Society’ can only work if young people are involved, saying they need to “have their voice”; in this article for our conference newspaper Litmus (which can be download free from litmustest.org), Kate Green, Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston, argues that only the state can really redistribute wealth to lift people out of poverty
Who could argue with the Big Society — cooperation, mutualism, devolving power to communities, encouraging volunteering — what’s not to like? Yet the Left greets it with suspicion, seeing it as a fig leaf for public spending cuts and services on the cheap. The Right, meanwhile, points to the failure of the state to deal with the most intractable social problems, the weakening of community and family. These arguments need unpicking, for both sides proclaim their wish to end poverty and inequality, and support aspiration, and we need to know what works.
Involving the voluntary sector in the provision of frontline services is certainly nothing new. It undoubtedly brings benefits: some excellent programmes have been developed and delivered by the sector, and claims are rightly made for its innovation, identity with the client group and the trust it enjoys. Similar claims can be made too of course for the best of public provision; the New Deal adviser who helps a lone parent into work; the teacher who inspires, the popular Police Community Support Officer; dedicated NHS staff… It is not the case that the voluntary sector is always and intrinsically better, though it can be very good.
The sector does though face some special tensions, and these should not be ignored. Acting as an agent of the state, taking reward for meeting the state’s objectives may compromise a charity’s ability to advocate for the client’s interests and damage independence. Trustees must be careful to protect their charitable purposes and more should be expected of them to demonstrate that they have taken that into account.
Let’s not kid ourselves either that the voluntary sector is anywhere big enough on its own to meet the scale of need. It is a diverse and varied sector, but even the largest players struggle to find the investment needed, or to carry the risks of “payment by results”. The sector is fragmented and sometimes inefficient, it often pays poorly and offers limited staff development – are we sure it attracts the best? The smallest organisations, grassroots and community groups, struggle most with sustainability. How in such circumstances can quality and consistency for the client be guaranteed?
That question becomes all the more acute in the face of spending cuts. For all that the Coalition government proclaims its support for the third sector, the reality is that its policies are reducing funding now. The axing of the Future Jobs Fund, cuts in budgets for children’s services, youth provision, youth justice, community cohesion all mean the sector is facing cuts — and there are more to come. So there is an understandable cynicism about the Government’s intentions, even among those who welcome the opportunity to play a larger community role. And that is before we get to the broader question: if we are serious about eradicating poverty, is there in fact something necessary about a strong and supportive state?
I firmly believe that there is. In my family, it was access to good quality state education, public housing and free healthcare that enabled my parents to escape the poverty experienced in their own childhoods, and give my sister and me the best start in life. And it was the state that underpinned the reduction in poverty since 1997, with measures from the introduction of Sure Start to the pension guarantee. Only the state can redistribute: poverty fell as a result of increased investment in benefits and tax credits, and it was the minimum wage not the market that lifted the incomes of the poorest at work.
Don’t tell me all that could have come from charity. The problem with voluntarism is that it is just that, voluntary — it relies on goodwill and on patronage, carries the potential for patchy provision and for stigma, and simply cannot provide a guarantee of justice for all. Labour didn’t get everything right in the last 13 years, poverty didn’t fall as far as it should have, we halted but did not reverse the rise in inequality, and some of our most severe social problems remain only partially resolved. But nonetheless we made much progress in turning the tide of injustice and poverty that was the legacy of the last Conservative government’s small state.
Under the guise of the Big Society, what we are seeing now is a government once again intent on demolishing the welfare state. Whatever the merits of the Big Society, history tells us that without that solid protection, it is a vision built on sand.
Litmus is a special publication from leftfootforward.org, conservativehome.com and libdemvoice.org in which leading thinkers from across the political spectrum address six key questions facing Britain today.
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