Big Society Blues

With all the hoopla, furore and general whoop-te-doo surrounding the Murdochs, Sky and a newspaper industry that’s looking more like a badly run spy network everyday, it’s important to keep your eyes open for the other news announcements. The ones that get sneaked out while everyone’s looking somewhere else. Even if they’re not bad news, you have to wonder why the story has to come out at that moment.

The latest example of this has been David Cameron’s renewal of the Big Society pledge. This is the coalition’s attempt to bring public services up to speed by allowing volunteer, charity and business interests to compete for their provision. Competition is, after all, a good thing, leading to more choice and value for money.

Well, yes and no. I agree wholeheartedly that the volunteer and charity sector is vital to the well-being of the country. I’m completely behind the notion that communities should help each other out, that local knowledge trumps diktats from a remote central office. And I also believe that we can see when there is a need for community action, and are able to quickly unite to solve problems. We Brits are also a charitable bunch – look at what we do every year for Comic Relief, for urgent DEC fundraising efforts in places like the Sudan. Frankly, we already get The Big Society.

The thing is, I’m not sure that Cameron and the coalition government do. Savage cuts to council funding have already started to bite the very groups on which this new strategy is supposed to depend. Across the country, these groups are scaling back services or are forced to close just at the point when they are being asked to take on a more frontline role.

And that’s the thing that worries me most. Charities and volunteer groups should enhance and complement, not replace existing local services. When councils decide to displace, for example, trained professional librarians with a squad of volunteers, there’s clearly no understanding that it’s a complex and labour-intensive job. It’s not simply shelf-stacking, and you can’t pick it up in an afternoon. Worse, what is supposed to happen in deprived areas where people simply can’t afford the time to help out?

I’m not alone in thinking this either. Oxfam’s trading director David McCullough has already spoken out on the issue after the charity was approached by other councils for advice on using volunteers. He says:

“A vibrant, engaged community starts from an investment in infrastructure and skills, which can then be supplemented with a willing volunteer base. Cutting jobs for trained staff and hoping to fill the space with volunteers will not deliver a stable, long-term solution.”

I think that while there is nothing wrong in principle with The Big Society idea, there are big problems in the way it’s being implemented and managed. And I also can’t help but agree with critics who suspect at a time when local councils are having to cut budgets by 27% over four years, placing responsibility on local residents is just cover for cutting council services. When the budgets for the groups who are supposed to take up the slack are being cut as well, you have to wonder who’s in charge, and what they think they’re playing at.

A Day For Change

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This is it. We’re finally here. I’m so excited. Today’s referendum is only the second that we have ever had in this country (the first was on our membership to the Common Market in 1975). It’s a chance to change the way we vote for a fairer, more representative system.

I love voting. It always gives me a weird little thrill to take my card down to my local station, to stand in the booth with my pencil poised. Even when I know exactly who I’m going to vote for (and I usually do – I also enjoy getting the research done on my decision, and I read every bit of political literature that come through the door) I like to have a short dramatic pause, just to extend the moment. Then I will swoop, marking my preference with a flourish. I will walk out of the station with a straight back, head held high, a smile on my face. “There,” I will tell myself. “I HAVE VOTED.” I can be such a ponce sometimes.

The very fact that I am able to stand and give myself a little moment in a voting booth is the result of hundreds of years of struggle to get power out of the hands of the privileged, monied few and into the grasp of the people of Britain. I always want to recognise and appreciate that fact, and the sacrifices that have been made on my behalf. The simple act of voting, that so many people take for granted and that less and less of us actually manage to get off our arses and complete, is the foundation of our democracy.

Many people these days say that their vote doesn’t matter, that it makes no difference whose box they put their cross into. It’s this argument that makes everyone’s vote less powerful. Not showing up devalues everyone else’s vote. It’s a selfish, dangerous stance. That’s what makes today’s referendum so important. A Yes vote will give us a system where our vote does matter, where extremists can’t get power, where you can vote your conscience instead of tactically.

But that’s my opinion. You have yours. And it’s your inalienable right to express it whichever way you like. Whatever you do, don’t waste it. Be a citizen today. Take a half hour and enjoy the fact that we live in a country where you can freely go into a voting booth and say what you think.

See you at the voting station!

(The excellent photo comes via Andrew Bloch on Twitter).

AV: Excuses And Half Truths Sez Yes

It’s time to put my cards on the table, to put up or shut up, to stick my money where my mouth is. It’s time to make a stand, stake my claim, state my position.

Yeah, the headline kind of gave it away, but with just over a week to go, it’s time to add my voice to the debate, and explain why X&HT supports the Alternative Vote.

Continue reading AV: Excuses And Half Truths Sez Yes

The NHS Climbdown: Who Says Protest Isn’t Working?

I’d be cautious to claim this as a major victory, but Andrew Lansley’s appearance in the Commons yesterday to announce amendments to his NHS reforms was a pretty significant moment. It’s rare for a Cabinet member to make a statement about a bill while it’s still making its way through parliament, and Lansley’s backdown showed us a couple of interesting things.

Continue reading The NHS Climbdown: Who Says Protest Isn’t Working?