efore the May General Election, David Cameron and his Conservative Party developed the 'Big Society' approach which has subsequently been adopted by the Coalition Government. It was no secret that many Conservatives found the idea either incomprehensible, or of little interest during doorstep campaigning. However, 'Big Society' has been enthusiastically adopted by the Coalition. So what are we to make of it?
It's easy to see it as a threat, Andy Gregg's piece in the last Chartist highlighted many of the dangers behind it. Are there opportunities buried beneath its vague aspirations? It's a slippery concept which can mean many things to many people. The Coalition itself, in its paper 'Building Big Society' says that: 'We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want.' Hard to disagree with any of that. It could easily fit in with the libertarian tradition within British socialism, represented by bodies like the Co-operative Movement.
Indeed, the Coalition statement goes on to say that 'we will support the creation and expansion of mutual, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and support these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services.' But support for co-operatives is qualified. The main thrust of the Conservatives' policy is to encourage employees in public services, be they state or local authority run, to form co-operatives 'to take over the services they deliver'. The idea that employees might be inclined to take over – or win a share in – private companies which they work for does not feature in either Conservative or Coalition policies.
The Labour movement needs to guard against a knee-jerk reaction which dismisses 'Big Society' as a political con. Yes, it's a legitimate response to say that all this talk of 'empowering' communities rings hollow when existing voluntary and community organisations are facing drastic cuts, or even complete withdrawal of funding, as local authorities are forced to cut funding as a result of Coalition policies. My own local volunteer centre in Huddersfield is facing complete closure because the Labour-run Council has to make massive cuts in its budget.
So do we leave it at that? I don't think we should. The last Labour Government could have done so much more to promote community action and co-operative solutions but was too fixated on supporting big business. The 2010 Labour Manifesto, drafted largely by Ed Miliband, contained some welcome support for co-operatives and mutualisation which lay the foundations for a more worked-out Labour approach to social enterprise and co-operatives.
Grassroots, bottom-up solutions should be natural territory for the Centre-Left. Labour and the unions should not surrender any of that ground to the Coalition but rather present an alternative vision which celebrates our co-operative, decentralist traditions whilst affirming that 'the state' still has major responsibilities in both economic policy and in supporting people and communities who are socially disadvantaged.
There are already lots of good examples of 'mutualism' in action within the transport sector. Community Transport (CT) has been around for decades, based originally on volunteer-run minibus schemes for elderly and disabled people. The CT sector has matured and grown enormously, and some larger operations have been able to successfully bid for a range of local authority tenders – including scheduled bus passenger services. The big risk they face is the loss of Local Authority funding as a result of Coalition cuts.
Another example of 'Big Society' in operation is the heritage railway sector. Heritage railways play a key part in many local economies, bringing in tourists with substantial spending power. Most are structured as not-for-dividend companies and many are registered charities or have a 'charitable' arm. Some of the larger railways, such as the Ffestiniog or the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, employ dozens of staff many of whom are unionised. A right-wing reading of 'Big Society' could argue that some rural lines should close and their operation be taken over by volunteer preservationists – exactly what happened in the 1960s following the Beeching closures. Whilst some early heritage railways had laudable aims, running regular passenger services for the local community, none have been able to achieve that. Operating tourist trains when the market is there (summer, Christmas, half-term) able to charge premium fares, is the business model that works. Operating an all-year round community service, without external funding, would quickly bankrupt most heritage railways.
The 'community rail' movement in the UK is about supporting local lines as part of a national network, not as museum pieces; it's a further illustration of 'Big Society' in practice, with hundreds if not thousands of volunteers supporting their local railway. They do a great job maintaining and improving local stations as well as promoting the railway in the community. Routes like the Settle-Carlisle use volunteer couriers who work under the conductor's supervision to tell passengers about the history and scenery of the line. It's all work in addition to that performed by paid railway employees.
Most community rail partnerships have some paid staff and they are worried about the impact of cuts in local government spending. The typical funding structure of a CRP is 50% TOC and 50% local authority. Already, some local authorities have been forced to reduce their contribution to CRPs and more may follow.
For the future, co-operative solutions have lots to offer the railways. The Go! Co-operative is looking to run open access services in the south-west; its mission is, “to reduce the social and environmental impacts of travel by providing mutually owned, high quality and inclusive public transport services that encourage people to choose more sustainable options”.
A much bigger prize is Network Rail - it could be relatively easily transformed into an employee-owned co-operative as an alternative to full privatisation. The train operating companies (TOCs) are more of a challenge given the current ownership structure, but a 'mixed economy' of wholly private alongside employee-owned companies running franchises may be less fanciful than people think. Train drivers' union Aslef is preparing a bid for the East Coast franchise and there is no reason why similar bids shouldn't follow. If the size of some of the franchises was reduced to smaller regional units, it would make it easier for worker and community co-ops to put in robust bids, with backing from financial institutions like the Co-op Bank.
Whatever happens in years to come, we are very unlikely to see the return of large state-owned corporations like the old BR and we need to drop the lingering notion that this is somehow 'real' socialism. It isn't. Instead, we should look for co-operative solutions which ensure that any surplus made within the industry is re-invested within it. The rail unions, with their allies in the Labour movement and wider community, need to put their thinking caps on and come up with innovative solutions which would put the Coalition on the back foot. Big Society? I'd be happy with a Co-operative one.