Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Nightmarish visions

Eric Pickles told us that

our Conservative councils will demonstrate how we will run the country

Johann Hari thought that this was worth a look, so he had a look at Hammersmith and Fulham, a council that makes Cameron proud to be Tory leader. This is a council packed with compassionate Conservatives, who have cut services - leaving a heavily pregnant woman to sleep rough in the park rather than find her temporary accommodation, as required by law. They hiked the prices of meals on wheels, so the users chose to cut themselves off from contact and one guaranteed hot meal a day. They promised not to charge for in-home care and promptly introduced charges that have left disabled service users facing debt collection agencies for non-payment. They are looking to sell off council estates with minimal protection for the poorest residents and they have ripped up the local running track so a private company can run a polo tournament for the wealthy. Rather than retain and develop a youth club to support the young people of the borough, they have closed it and tried to sell it off, with only the collapse in the property market stopping them. It is a bleak future that Johann Hari describes, but one that may become familiar if David Cameron wins tomorrow.

The council here told people that if they took away services like this, there would be volunteers; if the state withered away, people would start to provide the services for each other. But nobody opened their home to Jane, or volunteered to feed Debbie, or started a new youth club on their own time and with their own money. The state retreated and the service collapsed. It's a rebranding trick. The Conservatives know that shutting down public services sounds cruel, while calling for volunteerism sounds kind – but the effect is exactly the same. It's as if Marie Antoinette called in Max Clifford, and he told her to stop saying "Let them eat cake" and start saying: "Let them form a workers' co-operative to distribute cake on a voluntary basis."

We've seen some of these in Birmingham, too - Meals on Wheels is to be scrapped and the users signposted to more expensive, privately-run options. Service charges for everything from funerals to golf have been hiked upwards as the council tries to milk the residents for every last penny, while trumpeting that they have kept rises in council tax down. The council is busy flogging off every bit of land that it can possibly offload - although it too has been hamstrung by the downturn in the property market.

Make no mistake, the Big Society is just a myth to cover the withdrawal of the state from provision of key services and to allow business to run those which can generate a profit while volunteers - from this non-existent pool of willing citizens - will do the dirty, unpopular, unprofitable jobs.

As one of his interviewees puts it,

People should look at what they have done to us in Hammersmith. This is what Cameron and Osborne want to do to Britain. They say so. Remember, the people running this council said before they were elected that they were compassionate Conservatives. I can see the Conservatism. Where's the compassion?

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