Towards a social alternative

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 [email protected]

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

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