By Mike Quiggin
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There’s no such thing as ‘big society’

This article is over 14 years, 1 months old
The Tories want us to join them in governing the country.
Issue 2198

The Tories want us to join them in governing the country.

They want voluntary sector organisations, run by local people in their leisure time, to take over public services—and public sector workers to run their services as co-operatives.

This is not a new idea. It is a familiar New Labour strategy with new spin. The party has been encouraging the outsourcing of public services to not-for-profit organisations for some years.

It is a squeaky-clean form of privatisation. It doesn’t directly generate any profit, so no one can be accused of profiteering.

All the mainstream parties want to cut the cost of running the welfare state. There’s only one way to do that, given that welfare provision and public services are overwhelmingly labour intensive—cut the cost of labour.

Voluntary sector workforces are lower paid than public sector workers. They have much worse pension provision and a higher proportion of unpaid input by volunteers, including senior management.

One of the distinguishing features of a voluntary sector organisation is that many of its senior managers are unpaid volunteers.

These are local people who employ paid staff and run the organisation without remuneration and with minimal, if any, paid expenses.

The new voluntary sector that emerged in the 1980s rarely trespassed on established public sector turf.


These voluntary organisations mainly did one of two things. Some pioneered new services which had not been publicly funded previously, such as refuges for women fleeing domestic violence.

Others undertook community development work. They built local campaign groups which demanded changes to mainstream public services to make them less paternalistic and more responsive to the needs of working class people.

The advance of outsourcing has undermined this voluntary sector.

Now organisations either bid for public sector contracts to run alongside their core activities—the funding for which is often being squeezed—or they go under.

Organisations that are forced to merge to make “efficiency” savings lose touch with the neighbourhoods they emerged from and with the local residents that ran them.

This has aided the development of large business-oriented voluntary sector organisations—“social enterprises” or “third sector” as they like to call themselves.

They often form alliances with private sector companies.

The Tories say they will fund 5,000 community organisers, trained in the radical traditions pioneered in this country by London Citizens, to enable neighbourhood groups to develop the skills to run public services.

Yet Oliver Letwin, one of the authors of the Tory manifesto, recently criticised voluntary organisations for spending too much of their resources on campaigning.

Campaigning to win the demands of local communities from the state is precisely what is at the core of the “community organiser” tradition.

The Tories just don’t get it—or rather they do, but are cynically using the rhetoric of the voluntary sector as cover for public service cuts.

Voluntary sector and public sector trade unions must come together with community activists to stop outsourcing.

If they don’t, large national networks of predatory companies working closely with the private sector will increasingly run our public services.

Public service workers will have dramatically reduced wage packages. Public accountability of the delivery services will be lost.

The voluntary sector and the public sector will be taken over by private business using the Trojan Horse of social enterprise.

The work that local voluntary sectors did in pioneering new services or helping local people ensure that public services met their needs will be lost.

Mike Quiggin used to work in the voluntary sector in Bradford


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