THE BLOG

You Can't Have a Big Society in a Small State

21/04/2015 10:42 BST | Updated 20/06/2015 10:59 BST

In the past week, we've seen four new election manifestos - but with both Labour and the Tories struggling to make any kind of decisive poll gain, some old ideas are rearing their heads. The Tories, failing to achieve the desperately-awaited 'crossover' in the polls, are very rapidly ditching their stern economic message of 'tough choices' and attempting to resurrect the groaning corpse of the 'big society.'

Their trouble is, they have a skewed perception of what that really means - illustrated most recently by their announcement of three days' paid leave a year for voluntary work alongside a policy to all but cut inheritance tax.

These policies - cosmetic window-dressing accompanied by a significant scaling-back of the redistributive powers of the state - are the product of an ideology which sees cutting taxes as a moral duty, but not supporting the poor.

The Tories' difficulty in addressing the real needs of our society was perfectly encapsulated in the view of a Conservative MP, speaking on the BBC's Any Questions late last year, who argued that food banks are a positive charitable resource for those who run out of money by the end of the week because they can't budget effectively. In the Conservative consciousness, foodbanks are needed not because the minimum wage in the UK is currently not enough to live on, or because benefits have been ruthlessly slashed under this government - but because poorer people simply can't manage their money.

The second problem is their view of charity and voluntary work as the beginning and end of a compassionate society - the view that paying workers to do three days' work for a charity will not only make our communities better but will improve workers' motivation so much that the money will be made back in increased productivity. This is a fallacy on two counts: the responsibility for the wellbeing of our society lies with the government, not the charitable sector; and poor motivation of public sector workers is not a result of an unfulfilled desire to do some volunteering, but of poor pay and job losses. This government's restraints on public sector pay have allowed wages barely to rise while the cost of living has soared, and provoked a wave of strikes in recent years; the understandable anger of public sector workers at the lack of respect for their jobs shown by this government is unlikely to be mollified by the freedom to spend three days a year working for a charity instead of their employer.

The Tories cannot conceive of the real meaning of a 'big society' because they refuse to acknowledge the real causes of inequality, and they don't understand the nature of community. Conservative policy is based on the desire to shrink the state, reduce state 'handouts', and privatise public services; pursuing economic growth, they believe, is the only way to lift people out of poverty. But we've seen the effects of austerity, of the diminishing role of the state: falling wages, rising child poverty, and a widening attainment gap.

Community is not about doing three days of volunteering a year. Community is about supporting those who need support; catering to the needs of the many, not the demands of the few; and respecting difference and diversity. Community is about the richest in society making a fair contribution to the running of vital public services, the education of the younger generation, and the fight against poverty.

Sadly, Labour are guilty of failing to challenge the Tory narrative: pledging to be tough on benefits, boldly promising 'controls on immigration,' and proudly declaring that they are 'not the party for the out-of-work' are just as regressive as the Tory line. While they sign up to the austerity myth, constructed by the Conservatives as an excuse to shrink the state, and lurch to the right to court UKIP voters with demonising and divisive rhetoric, they cannot build a strong and fair society.

The rise of neoliberalism in recent decades has attempted to erode community spirit, placing the individual above the collective. But communities across the country are resisting this, joining together to fight privatisation and cuts, like the inspiring E15 Mums. The way to build a more community-oriented society is not through shallow, artificial policies on voluntary work, but through tackling the huge disparity of wealth between the richest and the poorest; removing the stigma attached to welfare and ending the divisive scapegoating of immigrants; and returning decision-making powers to local communities.

The Green Party is committed to rebuilding communities, and we believe that it's the job of the government to look after its citizens - not charities. This is why we're pledging to double spending on youth services and build 2,000 new Young People's Centres, spaces to broaden young people's horizons and provide hubs for community engagement. It's why our manifesto contains a commitment to ending workfare, reviewing the punitive and vindictive system of benefit sanctions, and raising child benefit. It's why we're fighting the race to the bottom on immigration, and instead pledging to offer free English or Welsh lessons to new immigrants to aid integration, and to end the discriminatory legislation stopping the spouses of poorer citizens from moving to the UK.

It's why we're challenging the austerity narrative and asking the rich to pay their way rather than refuse support to those who need it - because within a small state, you cannot build a big society.