Friday, 14 May 2010

Big Mouths

Henry’s last post gave me lots of ideas but I’m only going to focus on one. The importance placed on government control of the scheme he outlined was crucial. The role of government versus society is something I've been thinking about a lot recently. What follows is a brief outline of some of my thoughts about community groups and food policy, with reference to the Conservative ‘Big Society’ vision.

In the past week we’ve had an election and a new Con-Lib government. David Cameron’s first address as Prime Minister gave us some clues about the direction of this coalition.

“I want to try and help build a more responsible society, here in Britain, where we don’t just ask ‘What are my entitlements?’ but ‘What are my responsibilities?’ and don’t just ask ‘What am I owed?’ but more ‘What can I give?’"

This reflects not only Kennedy’s famous speech of 1961, but also the pre-election Conservative plan for a “big society”. This vision is of a society where every adult is a member of a community group or civic organisation, allowing the government to devolve power to “the lowest possible level” for local issues. One issue that these groups could tackle is food access. In fact, many of these projects already exist and are becoming increasingly popular. Local food projects are a way for civil society to engage with food issues, whether its people growing their own food, learning how to cook it, or ordering it in a cooperative.

At face value this appears attractive. Lofty statements such as “empowering local people” and “using valuable local knowledge” are hard to argue against for those wanting a more responsive food sector. However, there are valid criticisms of food projects that also apply to the vision behind Conservative plans. So let’s use food to dissect the “big society”.

Academics see the danger of local food projects becoming quick fixes. The lack of long term funding and no real network linking their efforts makes them hard to sustain. Their reliance on volunteers means that without the necessary resources, networks or background it is hard to become a part of these groups. There’s been interesting work done on the alternative food movement in California, showing how the language and practices of local food groups can exclude ethnic minorities. Many of the aspirations of these groups are not shared by the majority of the population. Even if they are, those who could benefit the most from them (low income households) have other more pressing priorities. Those with the least opportunity to act cannot be expected to solve their own problems.

The factors that create injustice locally are often about structural factors (e.g. wages, trade laws, transport policy) that citizens can do little to affect. We may see our political system as lacking accountability, but placing our hopes of better food security on unelected and unrepresentative community groups is little better.

It’s important to be cautious about going too far in this criticism. There are some things community groups can achieve and there are examples where inclusive and effective projects have emerged. However, I still believe their role in delivering policy is small. These groups should be less about doing government’s work and more about arguing for what they want from politicians. After all, it is government that has the reach to affect more than just the local picture. Perhaps it’s time for big mouths instead of a big society.