Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Big - but not society Does Small State seem any clearer after the Spending Review? This article by Anushka Asthana and Toby Helm, in yesterday's Observer has sharpened the focus on one particular point, which is that a key political sleight has been to get working class people to condemn the workless poor. With the notion of hoi polloi solidarity now exploded (not with a bang but a whimper), the Haves can sit down and tuck in without fear of interruption from the rabble at their gates. In truth this process has surely been gathering for decades, thanks in no small part to the decimation of trade unionism and the influence of a shameless press; but what the economic crisis has done is to give it a perverse logical justification. The authors note: 'polls suggested substantial support for the assault on benefits. Focus groups had told the chancellor they wanted welfare not cut but shredded.' And they quote the chief exec of one homeless charity: 'People have looked down on those out of work for a long time. So when you ask them what to cut – police? They say no. Schools? No. NHS? No. The armed services? No – but welfare, who is going to lobby for that?' And so it comes down to povertyism, the fact that for some reason many people despise those who are poor, seek excuses for their negative attitude towards them, and support policies that punish people for being in poverty. Some of our media and some of our politicians do the rest, with distasteful zeal. The brand managers are working away at Big Society. Big it may be, but it doesn't look like it will be representative of an inclusive society.
Sport for the Haves Today Nesta launched the Neighbourhood Challenge to try to highlight ways of stimulating local social action. “Community organisations across England are invited to apply to the 18-month programme. NESTA will select ten organisations and provide them with funding to trial an approach to community organising that reflects their own vision for what will work best in their area. We will provide the practical tools and high-quality training needed for participating organisations to help people in their communities create local campaigns, innovative community projects and new social enterprises that address their passions and priorities. We will also provide micro-finance to support the development of local projects and establish local challenge prizes to incentivise community-led innovation.” Deadline for expressions of interest is 22 November. Some good will come of this. But the first thing that struck me at the launch is how desperately tasteless it was to be in a plush central London location with a free breakfast among a large number of affluent be-suited people talking in very general ways about 'communities' that are characterised by high levels of apathy and low aspirations; and offering residents of those distant neighbourhoods a chance, by competition, to improve their lot. Statistically their chances of winning through in that competition are likely to be very small. They are expected to put in a bit of effort, symbolically making pleas to the powers that be, and then in all probability just knuckle down to things as they were before; or get picked off by the developers. What sport this must seem to the Haves - get the peasants to do a wee dance in their quaint custom, then show a little favouritism to a handful. Perhaps I'm being slightly unfair, but it was all so reminiscent of the ghastly mistakes the Labour administration made in its early years with challenges and competitions - dressing the excluded in costumes and getting them to jump through hoops. As if a process of lottery is a legitimate way of reducing deadly disparities in the quality of life. I hope the Neighbourhood Challenge will result in at least ten decent projects and lots of shared learning: I don't see why it shouldn't. While that's going on I just want to offer a few thoughts here about some of the assumptions that underpinned the speeches I heard this morning. First, the C word was used throughout, by a succession of speakers, apparently as a synonym for neighbourhoods. What this tells us is that they hold vague assumptions about consensus and cohesion in localities, based on slight experience or poor understanding. Secondly, much was taken for granted about how straightforward is the role of community organiser. This was revealing: it's beginning to become clear that the notion of community organising under Big Society is going to be pretty much value-free. They won't wait around for people to discuss and refine the values and principles that might guide their work, nor refer back to the previous efforts of the community development field....

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