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Posts Tagged ‘Big Society’

Regeneration destroys the big society

April 15, 2012 6 comments

Nothing kills a town quite like a regeneration.

Seldom are regeneration measures designed to benefit the community and are normally the result of backdoor discussions between big business and local authority apparatchiks.

Think I’m being too harsh or conspiratorial?

The place in which I grew up, Pitsea, a small town in the east of the Basildon district of south Essex, has recently seen the approval of a £30 million scheme which will knock down an aldi supermarket, a pound shop, a fish and chip restaurant which doubles up as a entertainment house at the weekends, and the local swimming pool which has been there for as long as I can remember.

In its place will be a Morrisons supermarket and a large car park. This will accompany the large Tesco superstore 10 minutes away – which when it was first built was the largest in Europe – with its large car park and 24-hour opening times.

The area has a Lidl and various small chains – it is very well served by shops already, but not a swimming pool, for which a train or bus journey is needed to Basildon, that is until it is used during the Olympics when I gather it will be near-impossible to use.

Opposing the regeneration measures were 1,600 signatories – but they were ignored. For perspective, in this country if an e-petition receives 100,000 signatures a Commons debate is guaranteed. That is 100,000 inhabitants in a country of around 62,000,000. Yet, in a town with a population of around 25,000, a signature count of 1,600 is too few for consideration. Farcical.

Recently a block of luxury apartments have been built to serve weekday commuters going to London for work, who are most likely to have homes elsewhere in the country, and plans are being settled to knock down the remains of the Railway Pub which was housed in one of the few landmarks in Pitsea – a house built by Harold George Howard, a local businessman in the area operating in the early 1900s, who wanted to make Pitsea “something special”.

But today Pitsea is a design of community destruction. The social capital accrued with the swimming pool will now be lost, replaced by another supermarket. People living together in the ‘big society’ dream is under attack from building apartments with the sole intention of serving those who are never here.

No conspiracy then. While the government, rightly, wants us to participate more in our local communities and curb reliance on the state as a co-parent, under their noses regeneration measures seek only to make this harder, in working class towns like the one I was raised in.

I’m sure this is the case in other areas too, and I’d be delighted and horrified to hear such stories. But is it the case that this government will end up looking more like the enemy, than the facilitator, of the big society?

Westminster farce and prognostications on Labour

November 28, 2010 1 comment

Shakespeare would have appreciated politics today. The combination of tragedy, the evisceration of the remaining strands of the welfare state, with the comedy of the Westminster bubble would have provided fertile ground for plays.

Had the playwright been conversant in modern culture, it couldn’t have been long before we had satires of Baroness declaiming hysterically of Labour, “There’s Klingons off the starboard bow, scrape ‘em off Dave!” But this is not satire; it’s all too real.

“The only thing [Ed Miliband] knows for sure is that he is a socialist and will stick up for the trade unions.” [BBC]

Meanwhile the whole media would inevitably be cast collectively as Titania, from a Midsummer Night’s Dream, awaking from slumber to see a Nick Bottom that looks suspiciously like Oona King. Alas there’s no Puck to “restores amends”.

We can watch for real this sad troops of failed politicians trooping through the House of Lords, with nary a critical brow raised from a media that should be scathingly critical of such creatures. Compared to this, the now infamous Lord Young looks almost as if he should be taken seriously with his Supermac-cum-Marie Antoinette impersonations.

As for Ed Miliband, who knows what the bard would have made of him. Certainly no socialist, the strongest words to come out of his mouth have been a demand that Labour ‘reclaim’ the Big Society model from the Conservatives. Evidently all the hot air expended by the blogosphere on tearing apart the claims of Big Society have been lost on Miliband, who is also walking a very Kinnock-esque line as regards the violence of student protest.

We know where that line ultimately leads – and Miliband’s inability to escape the Blairite paradigm is already a step further down his road than one might wish. All the comments about how Labour must listen, to become a “people’s party” is the most watered-down tosh and ignores the strong and steadfast role a socialist political party must play if it is not merely to bow and scrape with each demand placed on it by “the market” (i.e. the capitalist class).

Of course Labour is not a socialist political party. The delirious (if politically shrewd) rantings of various Conservatives to one side, it’s fairly obvious from the banal witterings about “hopes and aspirations” that the Labour Party has not moved on from Blair. It has no definite programme, no concrete economic or social aims, no critique of its opposition beyond the populist emotive or cynically managerial – and nor is it likely to acquire such.

Thus the parade of people to the Lords will continue to be fairly inoffensive worthies and party cronies. Labour need merely tread water until people’s resentment of the Conservatives outweighs their demoralisation. In some cases that will happen fast, in some cases slow, but it will happen. Then the populist and managerial aspects to Labour will once more begin to unravel and we’ll have a Conservative government again, unless we interrupt this cycle.

Resentment is not a political programme, it is a reaction. Thus were people slow to cast off Thatcher and Major, thus were people slow to cast off Blair, despite his great and growing unpopularity leading up to the 2005 election. Nor is anger a political programme; the occupations of universities, the demonstrations and – potentially – the strikes of the next few years will not bring down the Conservative government by themselves.

They might bring down the Coalition, depending on how panicky the Lapdogs get, but a subsequent general election would almost certainly see a Conservative outright victory or a renewed Coalition unless much wider sections of the working class are moved into joining hands with those in struggle. The battle to do this will be at once emotive and intellectual; the appeal to solidarity and collective, class interest. There is no possibility of Miliband doing this, or letting it happen within his Labour Party without a moment like the 1985 Party Conference.

Perhaps the kindest minds of posterity will judge Mr Miliband a sort of Hamlet. Caught between the ghost of his father, alive in the presence of the demonstrators (though not the hack SU and NUS officials who ostensibly lead them), and what he sees as pragmatism, he’ll wander the bland halls of Victoria Square slowly going mad. Or will vanish with a whimper, like Kinnock, to take his place as a working peer, like so many of the dignified, restrained worthies he himself has and will elevate.

Big society, education and democracy

August 1, 2010 13 comments

Continuing what seems to be this week’s Economist-watch, there was an article on Cameron’s Big Society ideas, and how, despite myriad flaws with the concept, this part of the Tory manifesto simply wasn’t going to go away.

What the Economist doesn’t note, of course, is that with regard to public institutions such as libraries, this ‘renaissance of voluntarism’ (I kid you note – that’s a direct quote) basically means trying to replace paid experts with ‘volunteers’, to do the same job – thus killing jobs and strong unions in one go, and getting rid, incidentally, of the one way in which anyone other than the government could determine how our libraries are run – by trade union action.

That’s by the by.

What interested me was the way in which the Big Society is presented as regards democratic theory. Everyone knows how representative bodies work. We elect people on the basis of what we think they will do. The Economist presents Big Society as aiming to push one step past this, devolving power to “nano” level.

“Traditionally, [giving powers away] meant beefing up Britain’s important local authorities. But Mr Cameron wants to push power further down, to the ‘nano’ level. This vision sees parents helping to set up new schools, public-sector workers running their own services as co-operatives, and small groups of people volunteering on local projects.”

I would like to take a shot at arguing that this method is far from more democratic than the alternative of strong local authorities. Tory Co-ops and the small groups (or large groups, as Paul has taken to pieces the Tory ‘5000 community organisers‘ policy, billed before the General Election) of volunteers, this blog has dealt with at length. What about the parents helping to set up new schools?

Beyond basic educational concerns (e.g. the integrity of the scientific method, or preventing History relapsing into a paean to Empire, with the concomitant racism), I fail to see that allowing different sections of the community to hive off their children is especially democratic. Certainly in theory it gives a great deal of power to the parents, though as Fiona Millar rightly said in a recent Guardian debate, in reality this usually translates to devolving power to some charity or private provider, with parents unlikely even to be involved in choosing or supervising the headmaster.

But in order to do this, it’s directing resources away from other state schools in the area. So the plan risks creating excess capacity at the expense of other children. There’s also the point that each school has an optimum number of pupils; enough to make economies of scale, few enough to render the school environment safe and manageable. Free schools make this impossible to plan for.

The argument, made by Anders Hultin, chief executive of Gems UK, a private company intending to step into this scheme to start opening schools for profit, is that if the market was allowed to handle the Tory policy, schools would only open in areas with pre-existing demand. I find fault with this argument – demand doesn’t just exist, it can also be whipped up artificially. This is what advertising is for.

So there are ‘externalities’, if you like, to allowing for the willy-nilly creation of new schools (and Cameron’s talk of the actual buildings these free schools might use makes my toes curl). There’s also the more vague externality of permitting further segregation of the school-age populace. Further privatisation of education will be felt in the opposition created between the success of ‘my child’ and the success of every child.

Rather than fix the state system, which should also be much more accountable, via elected school boards and local education authorities, there’s the impetus to simply jump ship. Better education requires more money, intelligently spent, and high-quality teaching. But no more money is being offered and it should be a warning bell that the Dept. of Education is advertising free schools in the same way as Academies: as being exempt from the national collective bargaining agreements with NASUWT and the NUT.

If democracy is the theory that every person should have a say in decisions which affect them, then allowing people to hive themselves into free schools or, or be scaremongered into hiving themselves off, violates that principle. The effects of that decision run far beyond any parents who might be involved, to the whole teaching profession, to the whole of the education system and to whole local areas where allocation of funding must be altered.

In fact, if Academies are anything to go by, and Gove seems to think they’re a useful parallel, then the very parents and teachers responsible for free schools might end up feeling just as excluded.

Has time run out for Labour socialists?

June 9, 2010 22 comments

I can’t express in words how utterly furious I am that John McDonnell has been forced to withdraw from the Labour leadership contest. After a few days of faux outrage over his comment that if he could, he’d go back to the 1980s and kill Thatcher, and Diane Abbott’s mealy-mouthed supporters saying they think he should be the one to withdraw, despite her pledge to do so if he got more nominations (which he had, at that point), John has rightly judged that her supporters won’t come to him, so he’ll have to give his to her.

Not good enough. Every campaign for the next five years – against library closures, against service cuts, against the attempt to further casualise the public sector – is going to be fought outside of Labour. Only historical revisionists and morons believe that the anti-poll tax campaign was a Labour campaign. And yet the Left has kept the life support switched on, firmly demanding that people exercise the great contradiction at the heart of our democracy: loyalty to a Party the leadership of which does not care about them.

Is it time to pull the plug? Since 1923, we’ve faced the same situation. Labour is elected with high hopes for its success, disappoints those hopes and is then swept from office, leaving the Conservatives to pick up where they left off. Since the end of the great depression, after the war, when the exhaustion of the capitalist system allowed for greater state controls (which had been utilised during the war anyway and rubbed off the red taint they previously had), the journey has been backwards – trying to find a way back before the post-war settlement.

This is the mission of the Conservative Party, and ‘big society‘ is just its latest cover. What has Labour’s leadership done? Nothing. We have been losing the battle, and all the while desperately clinging to what Labour has achieved – scarcely anything new without sacrificing something old. So, of the last three parliaments, we got the minimum wage and a long-overdue rise in benefits (for example) whilst Labour set course towards undermining teachers’ unions and education, through faster deregulation of schools.

Meanwhile, Labour socialists – an endangered breed that I’ll deal with in a moment – ask their comrades and friends to hang on in a party that has been swamped by vapid twits. Anyone who goes to all the events touted by the Fabians, has been to Oxford or hangs out online can’t fail to know who I’m talking about. The twits claiming the legacy of Nye Bevan whilst backing Ed Balls, for example, without seeing the incredible disparity between the politics of the two. Whatever Bevan’s deficiencies and later demoralisation, he was no Balls.

Bevan occupies, as one might notice, the strapline of this blog. His sentiment, that one should not stand in the middle of the road, that one should not be afraid to take a position has been my personal code all my life. It is far from the attitude of the Labour leadership and their coterie. It is a party rotten through and through, corrupt, full of patronage and seeking after patronage, unprincipled. It isn’t really socialist at all. In seeking after patronage, people learn to talk with a certain vocabulary, highly technocratic and bloodless. Totally removed from ordinary people.

Labour socialists of the Labour Representation Committee number somewhere below 1000 people – that’s less than one percent of the total party membership (excluding the trades unions). They are condemned by the Labour Right for being backwards. They are excoriated by those who exist as rootlessly as Labour’s London elite for being too provincial, too unwilling to work with other groups (whatever that means, as every Labour campaign I’ve ever seen has involved LRC members and parliamentarians). But they are the last remaining socialists in Labour.

The last election demonstrated that this clique will not exist forever. The Parliamentary group of the LRC was halved, to say nothing of the destruction wreaked about its bigger, less socialist sister, the Socialist Campaign Group. And even this doesn’t account for the wacky behaviour of a bunch of the members of these groups, like Michael Meacher, supposed Left veteran…who nominated Ed Miliband for leader, even though Ed had cleared the bar and with room to spare. So long as the fortunes of this group are tied to Labour, it exists within a contradiction – urging (critical) support for a leadership that will kick the poor when it’s opportune whilst claiming to represent them.

The leadership contest has demonstrated that no matter how well people like John McDonnell work, no matter how much support they gather, they’ll be outmanoeuvred by Labour’s Right, which can rely on the cowardice and (ironically) the uncooperative nature of Labour’s ‘soft’ Left. Harriet Harman and Ed Ball’s nominations for Diane Abbott play the diversity card but in reality are simply intended to prop her up into a slightly more credible candidate (still not very credible, from a political point of view) and force McDonnell out. All he has done is bow to the inevitable.

Abbott has the nominations – she’s on the ballot – but she’s not going to change the Party. Forgive my cynicism, but I’ve met too many soft Lefts. Despite her feminist credentials, she doesn’t have the detailed critique of the Party that is the remit of the LRC – and that would set free the feminist and radical energies that people were quick to impute to her. Indeed when she does her media appearances – the last I heard in-depth was on a Radio 4 discussion programme on Friday about two months ago – she can even be quite conservative. So good luck to her and her supporters – she’ll be better than the other four, but I don’t have any faith in her, and am rather sickened by how heavily she has stressed the fact that she’s black and female – like these are somehow politically relevant, except as tokenism.

John’s letter to Labour members, in which he announces his decision to stand down, acknowledges that despite enormous grassroots pressure – e.g. Tom Harris’ admission that he and other Labour MPs were deluged with letters and emails to demand McDonnell get on the ballot – the Labour bureaucracy and PLP were unmoved. His final appeal is to the strength of the Labour Left, that the fight against the cuts should be continued and that a Conservative government be denied the chance to have everything its own way.

With this, every socialist will agree – but I will not use my energies to electrify the zombified party that Labour has become, and I am one among many. Campaigns dominated by socialists will come together, and as last time, Labour’s leadership will do what it can to hinder them, so long as they aren’t tied to the apron strings of mother Parliament. They will face no backlash from their members, as the membership have nowhere else to turn. The odd constituency party might endorse the LRC, but even these constituencies can’t seem to get their MPs in line. And this is before the vast and reactionary weight of the trade union bureaucracy is employed by said leadership.

Are we simply to say that time has run out for socialism in the Labour Party? My anger at McDonnell’s withdrawl howls Khrushchev’s famous retort at the PLP and its groupies, “History is on our side. We will bury you!” And yet…

Marxism is not an exact science. Having shaken my socialist eight-ball, the answer comes back “Indeterminate”. This is the truth. The struggle for socialism in Labour is indeterminate. Socialism within Labour may be buried beneath the avalanche of bureaucratic indifference and then made irrelevant by the emergence of an organisation outside Labour that can combine within itself all the loose strings from every campaign the Left fights. The failure to do this after the poll tax campaigns, and after the anti-war campaigns has been the life-support of Labour’s Left.

These failures are contingent – failures of tactics, rather than of principle – and a success in this field will remove that last remaining leg. On the other hand, the failure of Labour’s Left to conquer the Labour Party (whilst a rather taller order than the first) is equally contingent, one of tactics and not of principle. Everything flows, and there will be more mass campaigns thrown up by the intrinsic processes of capitalism meeting the contradiction of the indestructible basic solidarities of the working class. These tactics will have longer to test themselves out until the impulse either to utterly change Labour or to leave it will move even the conservative behemoths of UNISON and Unite.

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