The Coalition’s main social policy platforms are localism and the Big Society. Localism was supposed to remove the restrictions on local people making civic improvements in their local areas. Big Society was supposed to enable local people to get together and make civic improvements to their local areas. One to take the barriers away, the other to support community activity.
But how was this to happen? How were these improvements to come about? Well here, there has been silence. Or almost. We have seen councils embrace and then reject the idea of local action without central government funding. We have witnessed government ministers urging people to bash local government. We have heard David Cameron appeal to Jesus to get things going.
So what about the Voluntary and Community Sector? Aren’t they the people who should be picking this up? Aren’t they the experts on localism and haven’t they been doing Big Society for years? Well, I’m sure they would like to get involved in all of these things but, if anything, they have taken the hardest blow from the public sector cuts.
Such perverse and contradictory behaviour leaves people confused or fed-up. And this means that the Big Society isn’t engaging people and that localism is little more than piles of paper in council store rooms. Quite simply people aren’t taking part either because there’s nothing to take part in or they are busy trying to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
At the same time, the Coalition has pursued an economic policy that makes large cuts to the welfare budget, imposes a bedroom tax on under-occupiers, and makes it harder to claim disability benefits. So we now have a situation where more and more people find themselves in need of help and we have fewer and fewer places to provide that help.
What, you may ask, are the Coalition government doing about this? What are they doing to assert their key social policy, localism and to promote their flagship community programme, the Big Society? Well, if David Cameron’s much-lauded conference speech is anything to go by, the answer is ‘nothing’.
In his speech Dave told us how proud he is of everything he’s done. So proud was Dave that he didn’t mention welfare cuts, public sector service reductions, ending full-time employment for millions, the rising number of food banks and all the other social catastrophes he’s so proud to have brought about.
But isn’t there a silver lining to all this gloom? There’s a general election in a few months and the Coalition has been so disastrous that we will surely soon be back on track with a fresh Labour government following a progressive social agenda. This is evidenced by Ed Miliband’s recent conference speech in which he … err …. forgot to mention austerity. Yes, he is concerned for those in work, for doctors and nurses, and yes, he supports a living wage but what about those with no wage? Indeed where are the proposals to reverse the damage done by Coalition cuts and reductions? Where is the programme to increase employment, balance wages and replace the regimen of greed with equality and consideration? I’m still looking.
So we’ve seen what Coalition social policy has, or rather hasn’t, achieved. And we’ve looked at what we can expect from both sides after the 2015 general election. What this seems to be left with is a pledge from the Conservatives for more of the same and a commitment from Labour to keep things more or less the same.
But is this good enough? I don’t think it is. Cutting off public funding removes services and increases unemployment. Doing so deliberately and intentionally is reckless. At the same time, expecting business people to step in and pay for social services is unrealistic and may be seen as politicians ‘washing their hands’.
Returning to the Coalition social policy platforms, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Big Society means No Government Responsibility and that Localism means No Government Money. Shifting responsibility away from government and leaving someone else to pay was the clear Coalition intention. When it concerns the most vulnerable people in our society, this smacks of malice.