A fair society not a big society

19 12 2010

David Cameron needed a soundbite to lift an election campaign that had become bogged down under the weight of economic forecasts, inflation rate speculation, spending projections and discussions about whether Britain was in a recession or a depression, and he came up with The Big Society.

I admit to being horrified at the sight of a Tory leader stealing the language of progressive politicians. It didn’t occur to me for even the briefest moment that he might really be committed to improving our towns and villages by supporting community cohesion, and my skepticism has proved well-founded.

For my part I am committed to a collaborative rather than competitive model of business. When I say that I am committed to it I mean that I think that it offers a valid, values led model for business, that I am prepared to tell other people that I believe in this model and, crucially, I am prepared to act on my beliefs.

For several months prior to Cameron’s pronouncement I had been working to convert part of my business, the3rdi magazine, into a co-operative. The magazine had, from the start, been a collaborative project between founders and contributors. My vision was to become even more inclusive by opening up ownership and control of the business to everyone.

Since the election we have seen lots of action from the ConDem Coalition in cutting jobs, public services, welfare and massive cuts in education spending but precious little action in support of his call for the Big Society.

But why not opt for a fair society? I’m old enough to remember the huge wave of enthusiasm for change that greeted Tony Blair when he first took office. After the naked aggression and consumerism of the Thatcher years and the sleaziness and lack of direction that characterised John Majors time in office, the majority of people did feel, as his campaign theme at the time had it, that ‘things could only get better’. In his time in office he squandered all of that goodwill; the poor got poorer and the markets remained unrestrained.

My belief is that we have to build a society based on something other than naked consumerism. Life isn’t all, and isn’t always, about the bottom line. I believe that we have to place more value on collaboration and co-operation. It shouldn’t all be about accumulating money and material wealth. We have to start to recognise the value of time and compassion and community.

Years ago doctors were held in almost god like reverence. Remedies of all kinds would be ‘just what the doctor ordered’. Now patients expect more dialogue with their doctors. GPs are no longer the founts of all health knowledge as information becomes more widely available. Even my own father, at 73 years old most definately a child of the generation who did as they were told when confronted with so-called ‘professional people’, takes newspaper clippings of the most recent advances in surgery to his consultant and expects a full explanation as to why this or that procedure cannot be used to cure his own condition.

Access to information has helped to democratise healthcare and patients can take more responsibility for their own general health and wellbeing.

We must use this model of inclusion to roll out democratic principles and ideas.

It is not good enough for David Cameron to disguise the privatisation of our public services as part of his big society. Selling off, for example, refuse collection was just the kind of thing that Margaret Thatcher espoused. It leads to the exploitation of those groups of workers who are moved on to these new ‘arms-length’ companies which are often managed by larger private sector companies. Terms and conditions of service almost invariably deteriorate under this model. True worker co-operatives, properly constituted and properly managed do offer a way forward, with the individuals having a fair say in the way their business is run. It isn’t all about economies of scale or getting a quick fix on the bottom line of a council budget. It is about doing the right thing; about becoming a fairer society.

We have seen in recent weeks protesters occupying branches of Top Shop and Vodafone and others, in order to highlight the tax avoidance of some of our larger corporations and businessmen. While it is perfectly legal for Sir Philip Green to put the ownership of his Arcadia empire into his wife’s name in Monaco to avoid UK taxes, awarding her £1.2bn, tax free in the process, it is not fair. Arcadia earns it’s profits in the UK and should pay a fair amount in taxes to the UK Government, particularly as the cuts introduced as we are all required to pay for the recklessness of the banks start to take effect.

Electoral reform is one small step along the way. A system of proportional representation is the only way in which every vote cast has equal value. Currently if I was a Tory voter in Glasgow mine would be a wasted vote. Similarly a labour vote in leafy Congleton would be a waste. While the disenfranchisement of our young people has as much to do with the remoteness of politics and politicians the reality that an individual vote has more value than others under certain circumstances is fundamentally undemocratic and discourages participation at elections.

I am an entrepreneur. I start and grow businesses. I’ve done this for over 20 years. I am evidence that capitalism can be a creative force allowing entrepreneurial spirit to flourish but it can also foster the rush to profit at all cost that led the banks to take the world economy to the edge of the cliff. Their place at the centre of the lobster quadrille made it impossible for governments to allow them to fall. There has to be more, and better, regulation of markets or we and our governments will always be required to behave in the way that the markets dictate.

I have aligned myself, and my business, behind the aim of changing the way the world does business. To do this we have to address issues of fairness; gender equality across business and public life in particular, global sustainability and unite behind the values of a fair society and not be taken in by the Emperors new clothes of Cameron’s Big Society.

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