Big Society or Big Con?

Two leading Labour/Co-op MPs have led the attacks on the Coalition Government’s plans to reform public service provision via its Big Society agenda.

Speaking at the recent Co-operative Party annual conference in Cardiff, former Schools Secretary Ed Balls warned that the Big Society idea — originally floated by David Cameron while in opposition — amounted to little more than a cynical exercise to deflect attention from the huge Government spending cuts to be announced next month.

Mr Balls, who launched his own co-operative ‘mini manifesto’ at the conference to help see off what he called “the Conservatives’ outrageous attempts to exploit co-operative ideas for their own very different purposes” added that the Tories were using the language of co-ops and mutualism to disguise policies which will lead to unfairness and injustice.

The theme was taken up at Cardiff by Co-op Party Chair Gareth Thomas MP, who said no one in the Movement should be fooled into embracing the Big Society, which he said was simply an agenda of privatisation, efficiency savings and a continuing attack on the principle of Government spending.

“We know the Coalition wants to claim co-ops for their own agenda, so we must be very careful,” said Mr Thomas.

But, away from the hothouse atmosphere of the Co-op Party gathering, two other leading Co-op Movement figures were less hostile, though still cautious, regarding the impact of the Big Society proposals.

The Co-operative Group’s Head of Membership, Russell Gill, told a fringe meeting sponsored by the Group at the Lib Dem conference in Liverpool that if the public sector wants to use the term “co-operative,” it needs to earn the right to use the name — and not just use it as a way to sanitise cuts. 

Said Mr Gill: “Co-ops must be values led, which might chime with the public sector ethos. Co-ops should have a membership, too, that has a sense of ownership and an ability to influence. Membership should not just be limited to employees, but be open to service users too.

“As a business, the Co-op Group has a critical commercial relationship with local government – so we will support councils as they evolve through the services we provide to them and the communities they serve. However we are keen, as a co-operative, to see the transformational opportunities represented by the Big Society debate.”

Mr Gill said the Big Society is making great in-roads across the public sector in areas like health, housing and even the BBC.

He insisted the concept should mean devolving power and influence to those using or providing the service and that policies should reflect local priorities and community needs.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, he warned, and said the Group was already playing its part in engaging with communities through initiatives like the Co-operative Enterprise Hub and Co-op Trust schools and academies.

Co-operatives UK Secretary General Ed Mayo also attended the Liverpool gathering and he told the News: “The Big Society is still a canvas waiting to be painted. The Lib Dem conference offered ideas, but no focus.

“The most positive engagement I see is coming from local government, but not limited to any one party. In challenging times, local authorities are increasingly recognising the role and potential of co-operatives and community action in relation to local jobs and services.

“If the Big Society starts anywhere, it will start local.”

Altogether, there were ten fringe meetings during the Lib Dem conference on the Big Society theme. However there will be 23 such events at next week’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.

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