Britain’s Big Society: Nothing but a neoliberal con

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Back in August, I watched an episode of the ABC panel show Q&A, titled “Big Ideas and Big Society.” Amongst the panellists was Phillip Blond, director of the British think-tank, ResPublica. Blond told viewers he favours “restoring our society, ending social isolation and…creating an economy that works for everybody and a society where people aren’t abandoned and left alone.” On the surface, Blond’s views sound appealing, but dig a little deeper and we find a dangerous philosophy designed to sugar-coat massive public sector cuts.

Bad ideas. While Blond was in Australia, he met with Tony Abbott and the shadow cabinet to promote his book, Red Tory. There was plenty of interest in his brand of conservatism, which would see “big government” get out of the way to allow the “big society” to get on with meeting people’s needs in a way that is “localised” and “responsive.” Other buzz phrases are “philanthropy,” “citizens’ empowerment” and “autonomy.” More soothing words, but what do they mean?

Fans argue that Blond advocates “capitalism with a conscience.” This is an oxymoron, making the reality rather different. The ideas in Red Tory underpin UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s social policy, which critics call “withdrawal of the State” and Cameron calls “community self-provisioning.” Cameron says “shifting power, control and responsibility from the central State to families and communities” is the way to address poverty and unemployment.

Putting more responsibility onto families and the community will immediate ring feminist alarm bells! Women are already burdened with the expectation that they provide a host of caring and domestic services to keep the economy ticking. Blond’s aim is to extend the already long position description for women’s free labour. In the UK, where Big Society has been the spin used to justify two years of savage budget cuts, women are suffering the greatest number of job losses, and more the 40 percent of double-income households will suffer. Pushing working women out of paid public sector jobs, which are then transferred to the low-paid and no-paid community and voluntary sectors, produces a massive reduction in the household incomes of working people.

In Britain, over 700,000 public servants will lose their jobs over six years. There’s been a 60 percent cut in funding for public housing. Government agencies have had their budgets slashed by one-fifth and more than seven billion pounds is being siphoned out of the welfare budget. Coupled with this, 70,000 jobs have been lost in the community sector, and more than a quarter of funding to local government has dried up, leading to further public sector job losses. The axe has also been taken to healthcare with 6,000 nursing positions disappearing since the last UK election, and education has suffered a similar fate.

Outsourcing on steroids. Australian observers of this current obsession in Britain for government to walk away from the direct provision of services can rightly claim that this pattern has been happening in Australia for a long time.

The local outsourcing trend commenced in earnest in 1998 with the dismantling of the Commonwealth Employment Services and the creation of the Job Network, which resulted in the majority of contracts being awarded to the private sector or religious agencies.

Rather than being direct service providers, a significant number of public sector workers are now “contract managers,” who ensure that community sector, charitable, religious and private sector entities which directly deliver the services at a cut price with low-paid, insecure workers, meet key performance indicators and avoid upsetting the pay master by staying clear of advocacy.

This trend was the first wave in Australia. But if governments of either political stripe take up Blond’s ideas, a tsunami of outsourcing and cuts is sure to follow.

They say cut back, we say fight back. Public opposition to the cuts being rolled out in Britain has been massive. Up to 500,000 people protested in London in March 2011 — the largest union-organised rally since the Second World War. Working people rejected the argument that is no alternative to the cuts and demanded progressive taxes targeting big business and the rich. The rally came four months after massive student protests opposing huge cuts to education and an increase in tuition fees. Mass opposition continued throughout 2011, and on 30 November a one-day strike to defend pensions closed schools, hospitals and other public sector workplaces.

A third one-day stoppage by public sector workers angered by savage assaults on their pensions took place in May 2012. As the FS Organiser goes to press, teachers in England and Wales announced an indefinite work-to-rule on 26 September, and public sector workers have declared further strike action in October.

If not now, when? The anger and determination amongst public sector workers remains strong. Union-led cross-sector strikes and protests give workers the opportunity to make their opposition to the decimation of working class gains, made over decades, visible. It is crystal clear that the majority oppose the cuts.

Debate is taking place amongst socialists and other union militants about how to win. What’s needed now is a general strike, a tactic that requires discussion within the union movement in order to gain the necessary mass support. A general strike mobilises workers from a broad range of occupations to shut down both the public and private sector. They usually occur at a time of heightened economic tension, when governments make savage attacks, when bosses demand big concessions from workers or when the very existence of unions is under threat.

Rather than leading, some socialists are actively opposing agitation for a general strike. In Britain, a number of former members of the Socialist Workers Party, including key leaders Lindsey German and John Rees, left the organisation to form a new group called Crossfire. They are leading the Coalition of Resistance — a national anti-cuts campaign formed in response to a call from veteran Labor leader, Tony Benn. Crossfire members argue that socialists should not differentiate themselves; they say that arguments for a general strike “will not connect.” I disagree.

Workers in Britain have demonstrated their opposition to the cuts and a determination not to have their retirement incomes stolen time and again. To take the campaign forward and win means honest debate about the need for workers to shut the British profit machine down.

Empowerment worth fighting for. Phillip Blond cynically knew what he was doing when he wrote Red Tory and made the case for people to have localised control over the services they need. The idea of running services ourselves is an attractive one. But slashing and burning adequately funded public services and nonsense about the superiority of charities, communities and families picking up the slack is a cruel con.

Blond has been peddling his marketing magic designed to make cuts seem positive to the Abbott opposition. The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), the union representing public servants, has been exposing the real agenda behind Big Society.

But whoever governs in Canberra — Labor or Coalition — public sector cuts are on the agenda. The CPSU has launched a Cuts Hurt campaign to highlight the damage already done by the Gillard government and to oppose further cuts. The union’s campaign highlights those functions of government which working people support, such as welfare, health and education as well as repressive functions, such as waging imperialist war, shipping refugees to Nauru, and imposing paternalistic policies on NT Aboriginal communities that many bitterly oppose.

Most public sector workers long for socially useful roles, and public sector users want a say in the services they get. Blond gets one thing right when he talks about “empowerment.” Let’s fight both to stop the cuts and re-prioritise what public sector workers do by working people seizing real power — the power over the purse strings!

Alison Thorne has been a public servant all her working life. She has worked in education and training, welfare delivery and multicultural services. She is a workplace delegate with the Community and Public Sector Union. If you are interested in these ideas contact her at

For an in-depth report see Big Society and Australia. The Community and Public Sector Union supported this research by the Centre for Policy and Development. It can be found out: dismantling-the-state-and-what-it-means-for-australia/

For more information about the tactic of a general strike, see Steve Hoffman, “The General Strike: What it is and why it’s needed,” Freedom Socialist, June 2011.

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