Friday, 7 May 2010

OK, so what's next?

While we don't yet have a new government the thirteen years of Labour rule are almost certain to come to an end. Even if there is no agreement between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats with the result that a LibDemLab coalition is birthed it would be met with consternation by the 10.7m people represented by those who won the popular vote.

Whatever box you crossed, and whoever your local representative is our future is a future heavy on Cameron, Osbourne, Gove et al. It is one in which Conservative policies you agreed with, or detested, will lurk. Irrespective of a coalition with Clegg the Conservatives have the greater clout, outnumbering their prospective bed-fellows by 5 to 1.

And so, Big Society will be the order of the day.

The Conservative campaign left me uneasy. I found it contradiction heavy and substance light. An invitation to be part of the next government is hollow when it goes hand in hand with state bribes for a given value of 'family'. It is a ludicrous claim to propose that we're 'all in this together' when referring to austerity whilst simultaneously rewarding those who have amassed estates valued at £1m.

On Thursday I read this chilling article in the Independent of what Compassionate Conservatism looks like when put into practice. If you haven't already seen it, please take a few minutes to read it.

It should hardly be a surprise that in the quest for lower taxation, which this article suggests is the mark of 'success', services would be cut. Nor should it come as a shock that the drive for smaller government means lines are drawn in the sand about what's important and what's not, what's funded and what isn't.

Big Society, compassionate Conservatism holds as the ideal that individuals build community, that they are the solution to any or all issues and that the state should facilitate but not provide. Clearly in Hammersmith & Fulham the facilitation hasn't always worked and people have suffered as a result. If this is the nature of the politics to come and the outcome of the government we have chosen what are we going to do about it?

Our response, at every level, has to be more than just disappointment at the outcome and more than just thinking about what a politics of opposition can achieve in the next 5 years with an eye to the next election. A lot is being said about a hung parliament being a wonderful opportunity for parties to work together. The unspoken subtitle to this is 'because they're forced to'.

I hope that I'm not alone in believing that the men and women we ask to represent us would have a greater desire to work alongside the other parties than this seems to indicate.

A politics of opposition is what we've had and from my perspective that has created a tit for tat world where across the country it's all about finding the silver bullet that is the solution, or the flaw that will deal it a fatal blow. It's a tear up and start again approach because if you hold opposing views and the balance of power swings then necessarily Everything Must Go. Take the Pupil Premium, it may be a good way of targeting deprivation but it is such a departure from the current mechanics that it is not just a tweak but a rewriting.

Big society might not be something we like. We might believe that those who are vulnerable (to whatever extent) are the whole point of public services and the whole raison d'etre of sending men and women to Westminster to give voice to the voiceless and for government to be nothing if not a tool of social justice.

We also might be very uneasy with the Conservatives having the balance of power. But this is democracy, sometimes you lose. We might be concerned about where the scythe will fall, how important areas of policy are approached and what the long-term holds in a bluer nation. But, this is democracy and when your politics loses, other people have the opportunity to govern.

Conservative influence and Big Society will characterise the immediate future of Britain. And that means everyone will have to play ball, to embrace those ideas and get stuck in. Because if you don't volunteer, then who will?

We now need to be part of our communities in a way that delivers social justice and challenges the gaps a withdrawing state might leave behind.

History is claimed to go in cycles and whilst we will not return to a true laissez-faire regime (marriage tax breaks for example are a fairly obvious example of state interventionism) as that found in the 19th century we might end up closer to it than we are now. In a Britain with low taxation, bureaucracy and state intervention there was little in the way of education, health or support that didn't come from the generosity and compassion of those in local communities. It was on the back of socially conscientious pioneers who challenged this status quo that the Welfare State was eventually built.

I believe that the Welfare State is one of the greatest things about this country. Not just for what it has done and will continue to do but because it places at the heart of the nation a fundamental understanding that there is justice in the state acting corporately in support of those who have the least as well as those with the most. A humility to understand that we are 'all in this together' which breeds compassion and mercy, not self-interest.

It's obviously both premature and extreme to say that there will be a systematic dismantling of it. But with the extent of cuts forecast something will have to give. There's serious talk of Proportional Representation amongst the non-Cons but isn't this just losing badly? After over a decade in power in which they have enjoyed a stonking majority rule, and even then subverted the legislature, the Labour Party have turned to this now they are faced by the spectre of losing influence. It's worth remembering that in 2005 a majority government was elected with 35.2% of the vote, less than Thursday's Conservatives.

What is real from the point of view of the people is a genuine desire for engagement. Even though the hyped 'massive turnout' did not materialise (the total increased a mere 4% to 65%) there is an enthusiasm to be involved with the political process where our MPs represent us and do what we tell them to do (even if so far they have fallen short of what we've asked on issues like 10:10 and the Digital Economy Bill).

Organisations like MySociety and 38Degrees demonstrate the potential for people to get involved. Tom Steinberg, founder of MySociety, has been co-opted by the Tories so does this mean that Big Society is being planned to harness this basic enthusiasm for participation, and the ability for people to self organise?

The state is about to shrink, the services and opportunities people have access to must not be allowed to follow. Standing on the sidelines and complaining about the incompatibility of Conservative and Liberal Democratic politics doesn't fix that, continuing the petty and snide mockery that has characterised too much of the election serves the needs of nobody, hoping that in 4 years' time the public are disappointed and crave another change in government is selfish.

We should all be striving for this Parliament, which will be one of the hardest five years in a very long time, to be a success and to be able to turn around in a few years and declare
'you know actually Cameron has done a good job, Osbourne hasn't seen a double dip recession, Gove's schools have genuinely raised standards, Compassionate Conservatism has reduced inequality and we've surpassed commitments to international development and the environment'.

At this moment in time I don't see it, but even as a Labour voter there's nothing wrong in my saying I want it to happen. How do we, the public, put our politics and disappointment to one side in order to help make sure it becomes a reality? And for all we might want to whinge about Westminster, we make that happen by being part of the solution ourselves. I hope that the 10.7m people who voted Conservative follow that up by being wherever the state no longer is. But more than that I hope that the other 19m do that too.

There will be reasons people say they can't do it. But people have turned out to campaign for Proportional Representation as I type. Would we be so keen if it meant having to volunteer at the sharp end of service delivery? In the toss up between flopping on the sofa at the end of a long day or going to support others what will we choose? And how do we achieve it with anything like the coordination that's required? Who provides the leadership and the steer and the guidance?

I'm fairly disengaged - I work in one city and live in another, I'm out of the house for 12 hours a weekday. Am I willing to foresake my comforts to help the least? To add something else to my weekly diary? What will I do with my married couple's allowance, if we qualify? Will people use it to support those no longer helped through SureStart? Will those who benefit from an inheritance tax break be bothered that encouraging their wealth might mean denying support to those on the margins?

Unless we use what we have the state is not going to deliver a fairer Britain. We will have to be part of the solution from the pitch, not just the sidelines. And that might mean that Conservative policy works, and you'd be involved with making that so. Like I say, politics and ideology on one side. Big Society here we come...