The Tory wing of the Coalition’s plans for the “Big Society”, which now include a massive shake-up of the police force, are not simply a cover for public spending cuts. They are far more sinister than that.
The Tories, especially, because they are genuine representatives of the ruling classes rather than the aspirant New Labourites, understand and are concerned about a deepening social and political alienation in Britain.
The parliamentary state does not rule through naked force but through a changing mix of ideology and practice. Because the state holds power for a minority – the capitalist classes – it actually needs, even craves, a legitimacy from society at large.
This is achieved through various mechanisms such as elections at national and local level as well as a reiteration of the importance of the state in maintaining order in society and providing essential services.
Without a consent that is also fairly active, the state tends to lose its authority. People stop voting, or express little trust or faith in mainstream political parties. This extends to a loss of “respect” for other parts of the state like the police force or the legal system. These are all a feature of Britain today.
New Labour’s response was to create more and more layers of bureaucracy while retaining power over decision-making at the centre. Thus schools and hospitals, for example, were overwhelmed with new instructions and targets almost on a monthly basis. None of this worked. Teachers and health workers – and the police – faced mountains of bureaucracy, which led to fiddling of figures on a grand scale.
The Tories’ approach to the challenge of securing support for the state is openly populist, by contrast. Plans for schools, the health service and now the police involve co-opting vast numbers of workers as well as members of the public. Teachers will be invited to have a direct say in the running of schools, for example, while “free schools” will go further and bring in parents.
Yesterday’s announcement about the police force involve directly-elected local commissioners, joint patrols with the community and the recruitment of tens of thousands of special constables. They will be unpaid volunteers but have powers of arrest like ordinary police.
The sinister side becomes more apparent with the prospect of vigilante policing and right-wing, racist commissioners being elected. Special constables will always be useful in times of social unrest and strikes, which is the period we are entering as a result of the economic crisis. And, of course, getting workers delivering front-line services involved in making the spending cuts that are coming up the line is a great way to divide and rule.
Our response cannot be, however, to let things remain as they are. That would put us in a position of defending the capitalist state and the way it does things. The Tories are desperately trying to modernise a state whose political structures are 19th century while coping with the demands of a genuine 21st century global financial and economic crisis.
This is a set of improbable contradictions. The capitalist state cannot possibly reform itself by handing over power simply because it does not and can never represent the mass of the people. A leopard cannot change its spots and the present state will always rule on behalf of corporate and financial power.
Our demand is not for “involvement” but a genuine transfer of real power. That means democratic control and ownership of resources as well as a political voice that is direct and locally based. The “Big Society” is not that, of course. But it does create a challenge which we should start to answer in a creative, revolutionary way to claim democracy for the people.