Wednesday, May 05, 2010

David Cameron's "Big Society"

With the UK election just a day away, the Independent's Johann Hari takes an in-depth look at David Cameron's model for his "Big Society", the Hammersmith and Fulham council. It doesn't look pretty. The first thing this "compassionate conservative" model did? Shut down the homeless shelters and sold them to property developers - with the inevitable result:

We know where this ended. A young woman – let's called her Jane Phillips, because she wants to remain anonymous – turned up at the council's emergency housing office one night, sobbing and shaking. She was eight months pregnant. She explained she was being beaten up by her boyfriend and had finally fled because she was frightened for her unborn child. The council said they would "investigate" her situation to find "proof of homelessness" – but she told them she had nowhere to go while they carried it out. By law, they were required to provide her with emergency shelter. They refused. They suggested she try to find a flat on the private market.

For four nights, she slept in the local park, on the floor. She is still traumatised by the memories of lying, pregnant and abandoned, in one of the wealthiest parts of Europe. The Local Government Ombudsman investigated but the council recording of the case was so poor she said it "hindered" her report. After a long study, she found the council's conduct amounted to "maladministration". Since they came to power, the Conservatives are housing half as many homeless people as Labour – even though the recession has caused a surge in homelessness. That's a huge number of Janes lying in parks, or on rotting mattresses by Hammersmith Bridge.

And this is par for the course. Cuts to home-help for the disabled (local councils are responsible for welfare in the UK), higher charges for council services, shutting down youth centres, privatising the local park and giving it to a polo club, all so they can cut rates for the rich. Their latest plan is to sell off all council-owned housing to drive the poor out of the area - a policy of socioeconomic cleansing. This is David Cameron's model, his vision for the future of the UK:
And in this boarded-up youth club, in Debbie's panic, in the image of Jane and her bump on the floor of the park, I realise I am peering into the reality of David Cameron's "Big Society". The council here told people that if they took away services like this, there would be volunteers; if the state withered away, people would start to provide the services for each other. But nobody opened their home to Jane, or volunteered to feed Debbie, or started a new youth club on their own time and with their own money. The state retreated and the service collapsed. It's a rebranding trick. The Conservatives know that shutting down public services sounds cruel, while calling for volunteerism sounds kind – but the effect is exactly the same. It's as if Marie Antoinette called in Max Clifford, and he told her to stop saying "Let them eat cake" and start saying: "Let them form a workers' co-operative to distribute cake on a voluntary basis."
Hammersmith and Fulham shows that the "Big Society" doesn't work - its just a tacky rebranding exercise for neglect. But the rich do well out of it, and that is all the Conservative party cares about.