Given David Cameron’s remarks about the “economically inactive” and his wish to retest everyone on incapacity benefits to catch an imaginary 5% of frauds, it’s easy to see the Conservative’s launch of a campaign to protect disability benefits for pensioners as an opportunistic grab for some headlines.

In his Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, Cameron told us that ‘Big society’ is the solution to poverty, as opposed to big government. He wants to move the power from the state to communities, charities, and families.

In theory the idea of of big society over big government is one I strongly agree with. In my utopia, we wouldn’t have governments bossing us around and telling us what to do, or encouraging us to snoop on our neighbours if we think they might be benefit cheats because we see them unload a van. In my utopia, families and communities would care about each other and support each other, and human beings would be valued for more than their ability to be “economically productive”. In my utopia, we’d all work less and do more that has real value to the world. So you might think I’d strongly support David Cameron on this issue.

In the real world, alas, the Conservatives do as little to foster these human values as the Labour Party has done. You cannot shift the responsibility from government to communities and charities without first changing the negative attitudes people hold towards the disabled, the mentally ill, and people on benefits. A society that sees us as scroungers who contribute nothing is not going to be a supportive society. Many families want nothing to do with their mentally ill relatives, and workplaces remain hostile environments.

Charities do a great job, but they are hugely reliant on public funding, so this hardly shifts the burden from the taxpayer. Additionally, and crucially, no one has a RIGHT to be helped by a charity. While society is arranged in a way that overwhelmingly benefits the well, the working, the extroverted, the person with business skills, it is vital that a welfare system exists to help the people who cannot function in it. “Big Society” won’t be achieved by stripping away benefits, and making the poor and sick even worse off.

I’d like to point you towards an excellent blog post by Richard Exell, which examines some of the facts and figures: David Cameron’s Big Society Speech. As he says, “restrictions in access to benefits and reductions in their value will hit the poor hard.”

Cameron’s position is full of contradictions. For instance, he claims “no wonder that ‘society is broken’ when people are paid more not to work than work and are better off leaving their children than nurturing them.” Wait, hold on a minute, does he want people to be paid so they can stay at home and nurture their children, or does he want them to leave their kids in childcare (if they can find any they can afford) and go out to work? We see this double standard in the press all the time of course – women who work are bad for not staying at home with the kids, but damn those dreadful single mothers who live on welfare so they don’t have to go out to work!

“Big Society” will depends on volunteering. How are people going to find the time to volunteer when work hours are rising rather than falling? Why don’t the Tories and others recognize that a great deal of voluntary work is done by those who aren’t employed, who are on benefits? “Big Society” requires a move away from the values of consumer capitalism and big business, away from profits above people, away from the isolation and stigmatization of disability, mental illness, and the “benefits culture”. This is not something any of the major parties really has any interest in delivering.

I would love to live in a world where big society can take the place of big government, but in spite of the rhetoric, the Conservatives offer nothing to truly move us towards that utopian vision.

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