How the “Big Society” fits into “One Nation” politics.

Many of us on the left worry that despite the obvious economic difficulties of many in our society, those in positions of economic power continue to act as if nothing has changed from the “glory days” before the crash in 2008.  Large bonuses and payoffs are still the norm, even in some publicly-owned organisations.  Statistics indicate that economic inequality is increasing yet at the same time many of the very rich seem to contribute little to society.Despite the protestations of David Cameron at the last election about the “Big Society” that more services would be run by community groups and social enterprises, a report by the National Audit Office shows that last year £4 billion was paid to four big outsourcing contractors, Serco, Capita, Atos and G4S, despite the fact that there have been some well-publicised failures by these companies.

 I strongly feel that what is behind the increasing inequality in our society, and the idea that it is fair game to make as much money as possible, is the ethic introduced originally by Margaret Thatcher, adopted by Tony Blair, and enthusiastically pursued by the present government,that the only way to run something efficiently is to privatise it.  This unfettered capitalism led to the crash of 2008, and may well do so again unless we think about a better way of running society.

 This is not to deny that some publicly run organisations were inefficient, sometimes overstaffed, and could not operate within cash limits.  Socialists should not try to deny this was true in some cases, but look instead for new and better models of public ownership which are efficient, enterprising and involve the public.

 This book considers some successful social enterprises in the North East of England, and argues that it is model which could be widely extended as part of Labour’s programme.

 Thus I am proposing an extension of the “social enterprise” model to many more services currently run directly by local authorities, and to some such as care homes which are run by private contractors.  I am also suggesting that the Government consolidates its position in the railway sector by running East Coast as a social enterprise and considers managing the West Coast Main Line in the same way.  I also wish the Government to enter the energy sector, challenging the private companies to provide a fairer and more transparent pricing structure, and developing new frontiers in nuclear power, renewables and clean coal, not just going for the cheapest, but in the long run less sustainable, option.

This is the start.  Let us see how successful we are, and we may go further if we can take the public with us.  They will support us if we are successful.

This programme is not just about economics.  It is about a new ethical agenda, that important services are run on behalf of us, by us. We want them to be innovative and enterprising, but also to involve us, the public, too.  We should learn from the successful public enterprises in Germany, France and the Netherlands, where far from being “lame ducks” these companies are leading innovators and success stories.

The term “big society” has been  discredited, and we may worry that if we use it we will be laughed at.  The term “Big Society” however,is something which emphasises the fact that we really are “all in it together”, and that society is run for us, by us. People still use the term “Big Society” and would welcome an approach which actually wants to realise some of its ideals.

This new approach is something which involves all of us.  But in the end it is not just about a slogan.  We need convincing proposals based on what works.  We must take on the nay-sayers who think that all the Conservatives need to do is produce a few positive economic indicators to win the next election.  The Labour Party needs to recapture the idea of hope for a better society while keeping its feet firmly on the ground.  We must challenge the idea that an ethically based vision of a better society based in economic reality cannot be realised in the twentyfirst century.  But first we have to believe in it ourselves.

 You are invited to attend the  launch  of the book Reclaiming the “Big Society”on Tuesday December 3rd at The Two Chairmen Public House, 39, Dartmouth Street, WESTMINSTER SW1H 9BP

 David is also talking about the ideas in his book at the Tyneside Fabians on Friday December 6th at 7:30 p.m. in the Park Hotel, Tynemouth.  If you wish to attend please contact Rita Stringfellow ((ritaorbrian@aol.com).  You must let Rita know if you wish to attend.

 The book is available from Searching Financ Price £8.99p

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One Comment

  1. First, there is no proper definition of “social enterprise”. Are they non-for-profit, is that the *only* definition? What about corporate governance – involving the public and users to have a role in decision making? What’s to stop a manager of a “social enterprise” paying themselves gazillions? It does happen: there are cases when public services have been moved to social enterprises and the management board have awarded themselves big pay rises and company Mercedes. What’s to stop a private company from owning a non-for-profit “social enterprise” as a subsidiary? In this way they can still be a monopolistic provider, just that some of the services they provide will be not-for-profit, by the cuckoo in the nest that is their “social enterprise” subsidiary.

    So before you even countenance public services being carried out by “social enterprises” you must bring in strict rules about the definition, rules about how they are governed and who owns them. I suggest ownership should be “company limited by guarantee” so social enterprises cannot be bought or sold, and there are no shareholders, they should be strictly not-for-profit, strict rules outlawing joint ventures with for-profit companies, strict requirements for pay including at least a living wage for the lowest paid, and limits on the top pay. There must also be public/user involvement in the organisation including public board meetings and papers, overseen by a governance board where trustees/governors are *elected* from the public and users rather than appointed from the “old boys club” that occurs with charities. All of this needs to be overseen by an independent regulator with the power to strip the “social enterprise” (or CIC or whatever you want to call it) description from the company.

    Once we have done that, then we need to do the same with charities. Many charities have so little “charitable activity” that they are really “social enterprises”. We need a huge spring clean of charities and investigate each one using more strict criteria. If their revenue activities are small (I’ll arbitrarily say 5%, but this needs investigating) compared to their charity activities then they can remain as charities (with the associated tax benefits) everything else should be a “social enterprise” and treated (as they are) as not-for-profit companies. I would also ban charities from bidding for public services, that is not a charitable activity, it is a “social enterprise” activity. It’s about time that the big corporate charities started acting as charities rather than non-for-profit corporations.

    Second. You’ve given no reason why “social enterprises” are right for public services. I would wholeheartedly recommend them for things like banking, insurance or pensions where the “ethical” aspect (that you fail to define) would stop the abuses we have seen over the decades, but what public services? Well, I think you are wrong to say that the “solution” to poor public services is “social enterprises”. What we need to do is make councillors more responsible for failing public services. I suggest, if a service fails – we need to define what “fails” means – the councillor responsible should be barred from standing for election ever again. The same should be applied to outsourced public services, if councillors commission a company that delivers poor quality services then not only should the company go, but the councillors responsible should go too. Failed public services comes from the poor quality of local representatives, so the best way to improve those services (their quality of service, governance etc) is to improve the councillors responsible for them, the public should be offered a better selection of councillors at elections, not the same-old failing politicians.

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