Monday, 20 September 2010

Conference reflections - big society

On the opening evening of our national conference this year, we had two speakers; Ken Livingstone who provided us with few surprises and a fairly safe speech for that audience and Phillip Blond, who is the architect of David Cameron's big society idea and one of the most provocative speakers you could wish to hear.

Now provocative doesn't necessarily mean good and a lot of the time people were just tearing their hair out at the stuff he was coming out with, such as re-legalising hunting as a way of ensuring conservation of the countryside and the fact that Tories have always been caring with the rights of those working the land very well looked after through history (sorry don't remember the exact details, but it was dismissed by some knowledgeable friends, anyway). I should watch it again to remind myself as the links to both talks and the Q&A session are available here.

However, some of the things he was saying were actually quite sensible - about talking to people about the areas around them and ensuring they feel they can have an effect on those things they care about. The trouble is that he didn't seemed to have a clue that this is what FoE is all about anyway and thought that we were just another environmental campaigns organisation who only ever talk about climate change in the big scary international sense and don't talk to people about local environmental justice.

The other problem I had with what he was saying was that in all the talk of rolling back the state and creating local control, he also acknowledged the need to get away from the big business model, but there was nothing to suggest how this could be achieved unless by state regulation. It's all very well talking about mutuals and cooperatives, with local suppliers helping each other, but when they're constantly faced with poorly regulated, incredibly wealthy multinational companies as competition, it is very hard for them to succeed.

This can be seen with the demise of local shops and smaller businesses all over the country and especially the terrible state of the farming industry being dictated to by supermarkets. A really important test of whether the green measures we take will lead to a better, fairer society will be whether there is a proper Green New Deal with sustainable local jobs created, or whether big business will steamroller in and take all the profits, while employing people on short-term contracts and then discarding them as soon as possible.

If the Big Society just means cutting the state, putting millions of people out of work and expecting business or volunteers to take over all of this socially valuable work that is currently done by public servants, it will not create any kind of just or sustainable society. If, however, it is done as a reshaping of the way we value control over business practices to ensure justice and freedom from exploitation, with curbs on the power of corporations and a move to more cooperative and mutually beneficial models of business, that is something many of us would sign up to.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth has always done the volunteering part of the big society, because we recognise the value you get from interacting with people and making a difference to your surroundings. What we want from government is support in that for all third sector organisations who do amazing work around the country, not funding cuts and also a recognition that the real power is financial not political. That means the first priority to creating a just society where people will want to take part is to use state power to create those business conditions that favour local small-scale enterprise and to ensure that the most polluting, unsustainable industries do not leave all of us to pick up the bill in future generations.

Joe Peacock

No comments: