The Big Society: A Big Con?: Diane Abbott’s full speech


By Mark Ferguson / @markfergusonuk

Today Diane Abbott gave a speech at Policy Exchange this morning and talked about how Labour should respond to the government’s Big Society agenda and give her vision on how civic society can be strengthened. You can read the full speech below.

“The Left should take leadership on issues around the family and community

My fellow leadership candidates and I have been criss-crossing the country this summer on the leadership trail. From the Highlands of Scotland to South Coast, from Wales to East Anglia, we have taken part in specially staged debates for the delectation of party members.

The media have written off this process as tedious in the extreme. The grander Guardian columnists have obviously met the Miliband brothers at innumerable smart North London dinner parties. What use they argue of a democratic process. Let the Toynbees and the Aaronovitches be the arbiters! And I have to admit that the contest so far has not exactly been “Pop Idol”.

But ordinary party members might not otherwise have seen any of us except on a television screen. And it has given them an opportunity to comparison shop between the five of us. So they have packed into the meetings in order to eye us up, as a housewife might eye up packets of soap powder. And they have enjoyed the process hugely. But what the process has not done is allowed any of us to examine big ideas. So I welcome the idea to offer a considered left response to one of the biggest ideas of recent times David Cameron’s “Big Society” I believe that it time the progressive left in politics reframed the issues about family and community.

Cameron launched his idea just this July, hundreds of miles to the north of here in Liverpool. There is something about Tory politicians and Liverpool as a site for dabbling in social reform. Who can forget the then Tory Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Heseltine speeding to Liverpool after the riots there in 1981 to dub himself Minister for Liverpool? He actually lived there for 3 weeks. Nor was he shy of state intervention. His big idea was garden festivals; compost and beddings plants as an answer to society’s ills. There were apparently five garden festivals in Liverpool all in all. But as the riots faded from memory, interest in the garden festivals waned also and eventually they were heard of no more. But, whilst fear of the urban mob was raging, Heseltine did not mess around with any namby pamby “Big Society”. Instead he strong-armed money out of his colleagues in government and big business with the simple statement about the citizens of the inner city “these people are burning this city and if we let them they will burn others too” So Cameron is not the first Tory politician to choose Liverpool as a place to emote about the “Condition of the Poor” question.

But, whilst Heseltine was a cheerful proponent of state intervention on a big scale, Cameron is emphatically post-Thatcherite and has a very different approach. In essence he wants communities to take a hand in solving their own problems. No dynamic minister flying to the rescue. Instead Cameron described the Big Society as being about a culture change where people “don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face” The Big Society is a package. Cameron claims to want “the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives to be much bigger and stronger” So the government will: give local authorities more powers particularly over planning; give community groups to take over local services; train community organisers; introduce a National Citizen Service; encourage charitable giving and support the expansion of non-state models of organisation like co-operatives. And it will all be funded by the £400 million lying in dormant bank accounts.

You have to assume that Cameron is personally attached to the idea of the “Big Society” Because it has been met with near universal derision. And that is just from Tories. When he first spoke about it one anonymous Tory MP described it as “complete crap” The ineffable David Davis summed up the basic Tory position as follows “the corollary of the Big Society is the smaller state. If you talk about the small state, people think that you are Attila the Hun. If you talk about the big society they think that you are Mother Theresa” David Davis was further quoted by the Financial Times as referring to the Big Society as being the “Blairite dressing” to a cuts agenda.

Most journalists are not as ruthlessly cynical as most Tory MPs. So they have contented themselves with pointing out that the Big Society appears to be an attempt to make a positive case for cutting government down to size and to warn people that this change is permanent. Cameron is clear that, even when the Tories have brought the deficit down, they will not be bringing back big government. When his revered predecessor Margaret Thatcher talked about “rolling back the frontiers of the state” she had one big idea and that was privatisation. David Cameron cannot match that. The” Big Society “more closely resembles a collection of small ideas with a common theme. The underlying concept appears to be that people are invited to raise money for and run for themselves local services like libraries and crime prevention work. These are precisely the type of service threatened by the cuts in public expenditure. Commentators have also pointed out that, although Cameron talks grandly about empowering communities, the power of local and central government actually comes from their power to levy taxes. Cameron has no intention of de-centralising that. Furthermore commentators have remarked that, although there is more than £400 million sitting in dusty old dormant bank accounts, for all kinds of administrative reasons the government will only be able to access a fraction of this for their sparkling new project.

So is David Cameron’s” Big Society” doomed to join Tony Blair’s” Third Way” in the graveyard for spurious pseudo-philosophical ideas promoted by conniving politicians to mask their underlying policies? After all Prime Minister Tony Blair had President Bill Clinton as a co-conspirator in foisting the “Third Way” on an unwilling and uncomprehending public. They had grand international conferences and compliant academics. But the “Third Way” still became a joke. Will the “Big Society” go the same way? Perhaps it will.

But the real question that I want to address this morning is that, whatever cynicism there may be about Cameron’s motives, is it correct to deride the notion of strengthening families, social networks and communities just because the words come from Tory lips? And why should my party allow David Cameron and the Tory Party to appropriate the notion of supporting mutual societies and co-operatives? These were bedrocks of working class self organisation in the nineteenth century. The provincial building societies of the Victorian era represented the best of respectable working class self-help. And the co-operative movement was one of the founding organisations of the Labour Party and remains an affiliated organisation to this day. Mutuals, the co9-operative movement and working class self help are very much part of Labour’s heritage. Why should we cede these organisations to the Tories?

I represent one of the poorest areas in the country. Unlike my leadership rivals I do not make a flying visit to my constituency every week end. I live there seven days a week. And Hackney has been the lucky recipient of every form of state intervention in the inner city since the days of Michael Heseltine. But I know that government has been a great deal more successful in regenerating buildings in areas like Hackney than in regenerating people. I have never been successful in counting up the billions that have been poured into Hackney under governments of both political parties. But I have often remarked that, if you had stood on the corner for a few days and handed out bags of money to everyone who passed by, you might have had more immediate impact on the lives of ordinary people.

I do not want to sound ungrateful. The combination of a beneficent Labour Mayor and a beneficent Labour government has meant huge infrastructure improvements in Hackney in the past decade. We have a brand new underground line, vastly improved bus services and sparkling new stations. Millions have been spent on our hospitals and buildings for GP surgeries. We have five new secondary schools; millions have been spent on primary schools and colleges. Millions have been spent renovating our estates. My government also presided over a housing bubble which was very lucrative for many. When the West Indian community moved to Hackney in the 1960’s you could not give away property in the area. Many a house-proud black pensioner whose door I knocked on in the last election, acquired their home in the 1960’s at rock bottom prices. Many more were able to sell houses, originally acquired for tens of thousands, for hundreds of thousands at the height of the housing bubble and head off to the Caribbean to live lives of ease and luxury on their public sector pensions.

The state has been able to improve infrastructure, preside over a stratospheric rise in property prices and has brought down unemployment in inner city areas all over the country. Fixing family structures and community relationships has proved more challenging.

We know something has happened to family structures and the cohesiveness of the family, when family members routinely crowd in front of the television cameras to blame social workers when a child dies at the hand of another family member. They never hesitate to blame social services or to air their suspicions that something was going wrong. But sometimes I wonder “What did they do?” Don’t they take any responsibility for the grandchild or niece? Have we completed sub-contracted responsibility for family members to under-paid and over worked employees of the state?

It is no wonder that working class boys, of whatever colour, continue to fail in schools when they grow up on estates where they rarely see a man getting up and going to work regularly, let alone read a book. My family started life in Britain in one room with a cooker on the landing. Many friends and family lived like that. But I had a gift beyond price which I took for granted at the time. Every week day that God sent my father got up and went to work. On a Friday he brought home his wage packet and doled out my mother’s house keeping and pocket money for my brother and me. It seared into my consciousness and the consciousness of my brother that this was what being a man was. Manly behaviour for us was going out and working to keep your family. Sadly too few of the children on the council estates that surround my house in Hackney have that simple notion of manliness.

For decades politicians and others have debated the problem of the single mother and female headed households. But there needs to be a little more debate about the men who leave. The sad history of the Child Support Agency proves that there is no quick fix for making men stay with their families. The Child Support Agency was brought in by a Tory government but went through unopposed. The consensus in the speeches in parliament at the time was that this was legislation aimed at working class men who were avoiding their responsibilities. It turned out that the agency did not impact on feckless working class men at all because of the simple fact that these men did not have jobs in the first. It did impact on middle class men who felt they could walk away. And their rage was awesome to behold. Politicians have backed away from the agency ever since. And of course the existence of the agency has had absolutely no impact on the number of broken families

I take a particularly strong view on issues of self-help and community solidarity because I come from an immigrant family. Social solidarity within the immigrant community is often regarded as problematic. But I think that it is something worth respecting.

I grew up in an immigrant community where notions of interdependence and the importance of family were very real indeed. Normally one family member would go ahead to Britain. They would go to a town or part of a city where there was already someone from their own parish. Once there, they would usually stay with someone from their extended family. They would rely on that extended family for help in getting a job and all the sorts of practical support that social workers attempt to supply today. Once they were established they would send for the rest of their family, often one by one. My father left school at fourteen, as was normal in rural Jamaica at the time. But he was regarded as highly intelligent and something of a go-getter. I can remember a steady stream of relatives coming to our house to live as their first home when they came from Jamaica. And I remember other relatives trooping to my father’s door for advice about the puzzling new world of Britain and help reading (and filling in) forms.

Because community networks are so vital to immigrant groups, they tend to retain them long after the group as a whole has moved on and up the social ladder. The Jewish community is an example of a one-time immigrant group, now firmly established in Britain’s middle and professional class, which retains a robust community infrastructure and a sense of the collective.

I reject the idea of “Broken Britain”. I know of too many hardworking volunteers and unsung neighbourliness for that. Nor do I demonise young men in the inner city. I run a range of education programmes, including an awards program for London’s top achieving black children. So I know, despite the odds, how many young people on our estates and in the inner cities continue to strive for academic excellence. If Cameron’s “Big Society” is just a way of marketing big cuts in the welfare state it will be firmly rejected, not just by me but, by the British people. It will become deader than Tony Blair’s unlamented “Third Way” And I believe strong properly funded state institutions with paid professional staff. I do not share the agenda of the Tory right for a smaller state. And I believe that a proper social wage, a drive for full employment, investment in housing are all pre-conditions for beginning to address the issues of family and community that I have touched on.

But it is still the case that we on the left cannot afford to ignore these issues. Money alone cannot cure all the ills of our inner city communities. If socialism means anything at all, it means that I am my brother’s keeper. But these key issues of family and community have been largely ignored in this leadership campaign. But in the long run these are the things that really matter to people. But the press is focused on turning the leadership election into a soap opera. On the one hand they have determined that anyone can win just so long as their name is Miliband. And on the other hand yesterday’s politicians are reaching out from the grave to peddle their books and attempt to influence the outcome of the race.

But when people complain about boys kicking footballs against the walls of their house, noisy neighbours, anti-social behaviour, or the fact that increasing numbers of faces on the high street look different from them; there is an underlying theme. And that is that they are expressing is their sense of the breakdown of their community. It is startling how many people living in our big towns do not know their members. The flexible labour markets, which New Labour exalted, created unstable communities. A housing benefit system which was not fit for purpose meant that there were too many council estates in high rent areas like London which were full of the workless.

I believe that it is time issues around family and community took centre stage in the debate about what the Labour party is for. New Labour, with it’s obsessions with markets, actually helped fray some of the ties that help hold communities together. New labour regarded mutual organisation and co-ops as dusty and old fashioned compared to the bright shiny world of the free markets and international financial services. But now unfettered free markets have nearly crashed the world economy, maybe it is time for the Labour party to rediscover some of those old models. They might provide appropriate structures going forward for banks like Northern Rock currently in government ownership.

We cannot cede the argument about families, community and self-help to the right. A movement born out of the best of working class self-help and self-organisation should be leading the debate on these issues.”

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