Towards a social alternative

November 16, 2012 4:40 pm

By David Robinson

A practical political vision must build from present day realities.  Birmingham city council leader, Sir Albert Bore, has said that we are witnessing “the end of local government as know it”. Certainly the Tory managed recession has forced profound and ill considered cuts and there will be no quick return to pre 2009 spending levels.

Demographic change is simultaneously increasing need whilst services are shrinking. These trends are combining into a vicious spiral.  The remaining resources are sucked into managing the greatest needs, earlier stage interventions are abandoned and more problems become more difficult when they might have been prevented entirely. Effective services tail spin into crisis management with inevitable consequences.

In short public services are changing and will change more radically and more fundamentally in the decade from 2010 to 2020 than in any comparable period since the 1940s. Then there was a commitment to build, there was an overarching vision, a coordinated plan and overwhelming popular support. Today, across government and opposition, there is a will to reduce expenditure but no unifying vision and no coherent long term plan. Last time Beveridge was the architect. This time there are no drawings, just random demolition.

The “economic alternative” is much discussed in the party but its not enough. We need alternative ways  of thinking about the nature of the society we want to build, about our expectations of that society and of one another and about the public policy that is needed for the achievement of our ambitions.

My community in east London is typical of many. It was never broken but it has been battered. Battered by the storms in the global economy and battered by a government who have chosen to pass on a disproportionate share of the sacrifice to those with the most limited capacity to bear the burden. Here we ache for a “social alternative” driven perhaps by financial imperative but rooted in our beliefs and begetting a bold approach to government.

A piecemeal, programmatic response, layering specific initiatives over a failing system, is neither affordable nor adequate. We need to challenge and change culture, systems and structures.

The rich seams of a collaborative settlement between citizen and community, community and state run deep in our movement – cooperation, collective action, mutualism – yet incredibly  the Tories superficial  “Big Society” wrapper dominates the debate. We need to reclaim the territory with a visionary alternative that builds on solid policy principles.   Here are my top 5 to start the debate:

  • We all have potential:  The individual is the author of their own life. They can and should rise as far as their talents can take them.  We all need support at some time in our lives and, because of poverty, prejudice or lack of opportunity some need more than others. With the right training, advice, personal or practical support and access to resources, everyone has the potential to achieve great things. Public policy should unleash potential.
  • People change lives: It is not only possible for one human being to make a real and lasting difference to another, it is often, in the most difficult circumstances, the only thing that ever does. Practical support or the transfer of knowledge creates the conditions for progress, but it is the deeper qualities of a relationship that that has the power to transform. Policy should place relationships, not  transactions, at the heart of our public services.
  • It is better to tackle causes than consequences:  Current spending trajectories particularly in health and social care will soon be unaffordable if they aren’t already. More broadly our patterns of consumption are environmentally and economically unsustainable. We need to look ahead, to reduce future liabilities and to prioritise sustainable solutions above short term crisis management . We should develop a need reduction strategy promoting the “readiness” to seize opportunity not just the resilience to cope with adversity.  Policy should prevent problems from occurring, not cope inadequately  with their consequences
  • We  need to be involved: We  should expect opportunities and support to participate in the delivery of services and in their governance. We need a new, more dynamic set of relationships between state and citizen, providers and service users. No longer passive recipients but active and empowered collaborators.  Policy should give people more control over their lives.
  • Fairness and equality are fundamental:  Fairer and more equal societies are happier and healthier and ultimately lower maintenance, so combining social justice and financial prudence.  Policy should erode conspicuous inequality.

My policy principles can be debated.  I hope they will be. But the case for a social alternative is surely beyond dispute. We need it to be ambitious, we need it to be inclusive and,  more than ever, we need to get on with it.

David Robinson is co-founder of Community Links. He welcomes any comments to this piece. Please email him at David.Robinson@community-links.org

This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

  • Jess

    Very good article, especially the final points I agree entirely that policy should place relationships not transactions at the heart of public services. Thanks for this.

  • http://twitter.com/OssieFikret Ossie Fikret

    An inspirational piece which accurately addresses current problems and how we can go forward. Early action is going to be vital to the survival and sustainability of our public services, from healthcare to criminal justice. The individual must be at the centre of public services, and empowering that individual to ensure they reach their maximum potential must always be at the heart of our policy.

  • Radhika

    Day after day we hear of cuts, closures, the ripping up of the crucial supports that sustain people facing the challenges of illness, unemployment, homelessness. Reading this gives me hope that an alternative vision is possible. We can only hope that those charged with shaping policy might grasp these ideas and use them to open up a public conversation about the type of country we want to live in.

  • Radhika

    Day after day we hear of cuts, closures, the ripping up of the crucial supports that sustain people facing the challenges of illness, unemployment, homelessness. Reading this gives me hope that an alternative vision is possible. We can only hope that those charged with shaping policy might grasp these ideas and use them to open up a public conversation about the type of country we want to live in.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    I think the ‘relationships’ focus has its limits which need to be recognised.

    A lot of public services are transactional, either by nature of the service provided or because the individual draws on that service so infrequently that there is not the contact time for a relationship.

    Good quality services, easily accessible, tailored to and responsive to the needs of the recipient are a worthwhile aim and compatible with both transactional and relationship focuses.

    • http://twitter.com/rmlondon Richard McKeever

      Agreed there is a big difference between transactions and relationships … for example Starbucks – with their “give us your name when you order a coffee” scheme have disastrously misjudged the line making them look ridiculous … if more encounters with “the state” could be organised as quick, efficient and easy transactions it would free-up the time of front-line staff to devote to building deeper relationships where it is appropriate.

  • Radhika

    Day after day we hear of cuts, closures, the ripping up of the crucial supports that sustain people facing the challenges of illness, unemployment, homelessness. Reading this gives me hope that an alternative vision is possible. We can only hope that those charged with shaping policy might grasp these ideas and use them to open up a public conversation about the type of country we want to live in.

  • Will

    I agree with all of this, and my question is how we realise it in specific policy areas? Hilary Cottam’s ideas on Relational Welfare (http://labourlist.org/2012/11/the-case-for-relational-welfare/) embody all of David’s 5 principles. I haven’t yet seen proposals in health, social care, education, policy etc which do the same. Perhaps that’s our next challenge

  • Joe D

    Great article. It’s spot-on in terms of the risks arising from the short-sited cuts; that they will cost us greatly in the long-term in terms of greater need and lost potential.

    I’ve always thought a knee-jerk rejection of the ideas behind the Big Society was a mistake, allowing as it did for us to be painted as the party only of the big state. Of course we should expose the cynical use of the idea to cover for the Government’s cuts agenda, but we need to ensure we retain and build on the communitarian and voluntarist traditions so integral to our movement.

    I love the principles and think they are a good place to start in our approach to the area. It might be useful to include reciprocity here though; both between the citizen and the state, and between citizens themselves.

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