Two excellent recent articles in the Guardian have taken dramatically opposing positions on the coalition’s ‘big society’ idea.
Here, Jonathan Freedland argues that Cameron and the coalition are the wrong bearers of the right message, and that those of progressive politics should resist rejecting the idea out of hand. There is a baby in that bathwater, he argues, to which we have at the very least a decent ‘claim of paternity’ as it reflects our values of co-operation, mutualism, self-help and self-organisation.
More recently, Polly Toynbee here takes an opposing view. One of the lessons of post-communism, she argues, was to watch the tragic unfolding of social implosion once the communist regimes fell, largely because there was no heritage or tradition of voluntary and community action able to step in to the vacuum left by failed statism. An interesting view.
But she goes on to argue that that in the UK voluntary sector activity is made possible overwhelmingly by state financial support (currently in the form of contracts and the purchasing of services rather than grants, as of old) and that this expenditure too is being slashed, especially by public institutions looking for cheaper (and less confrontational) alternatives to making their own workers redundant. Hardly news to anyone familiar with the sector, but interesting to see this being argued in an informed way in the national press.
Of even greater significance, perhaps, is the news that the women’s equality organisation, The Fawcett Society, has launched a legal challenge to the budget on the grounds that the Treasury has broken the law by failing to carry out an equalities impact assessment which would have revealed — as the Fawcett Society’s research has shown — that the public spending cuts being pursued by government impact disproportionately on women. You can read coverage of the case here in the Guardian and here on the BBC news website.
Women in low paid and part-time public sector employment are more likely than men to be hit by wage freezes and job cuts because they are in the majority in these kinds of jobs. Cuts in benefits and tax credits will also hit women harder than men. The Fawcett Society’s initial analysis of the proposed budget cuts indicated that almost three-quarters of the cuts would be met from women’s incomes. You can read their coverage here.
The significance of all this is that it has huge implications for how civil society organisations choose to align themselves with big society ideas. To put it bluntly, there will be many currently trying to work out how to capitalise on the good parts of the big society agenda while minimising the potential for reputational risk with the wider public.