The Big Society: innovation or slogan?

In part two of our debate, Phillip Blond, political commentator and author of 'RedTory', believes that the Big Society is a policy whose time has come. Meanwhile, the MP Tessa Jowell argues that its architects are simply handing over their problems to the public

Wednesday 09 February 2011 01:00 GMT
(Darren Fletcher/Rex)

Phillip Blond: This has nothing to do with cuts

The Big Society has come under much attack of late, its enemies have ranged from the conventional right to the orthodox left – both of whom seem equally anxious to preserve their failed verities and increasingly vapid ideologies. Separating this vestigial hostility from justified concern and cogent critique is an urgent task for civil society supporters and celebrating genuine progress and acknowledging difficulty and error in implementation so far an important task for government. But for the Big Society, all of this is now background hum because the Big Society has – while not fatally but certainly tragically – become identified with the cuts and politics of the deficit agenda.

The Big Society has nothing to do with cuts. If Britain was still in the la-la land of finance, leverage-driven growth and asset-bubble inflation – the Big Society would be, in part, its necessary corrective, helping to evenly distribute growth, innovation and prosperity across all of Britain. People complaining about the Big Society are, in point of fact, usually complaining about cuts – if the Big Society project falters (which it should not and will not) the cuts won't go away. In the current situation both Labour and the Coalition would cut deeply and dramatically, the gap between them at around 1 per cent of public expenditure per year is smaller than either would like to acknowledge and since Labour privately admit they would have needed to increase the rate of cutback originally envisaged by Alistair Darling in pre-election phase, it is probably smaller yet. So, regardless of party politics, the misfortune for the Big Society is that it has been born into an environment of unprecedented public austerity. Well, difficult births can sometimes lead to glorious lives. Moreover, apart from deranged statists and neo-Thatcherites, this is not a child that anyone seriously wants to abandon.

For what few have seemed to notice about Ed Miliband's speech at last month's Fabian conference is that he rightly recognised the Big Society as the new centre ground of British politics and committed himself to developing a Labour variant of it. He declared that Labour had made the mistake of believing too much in the top-heavy state and in an irresponsible financial market. This conversion ensures that whoever wins the next election, the Big Society is here to stay. And that signals a far more profound shift in British politics than is commonly recognised. For Britain since the Second World War has been governed by the same oscillation between the extremes of state collectivism and market individualism and both have squeezed out the civic middle of ordinary people and their communities, businesses and neighbourhoods. In this sense, the Big Society is beyond left and right, and represents Cameron's genuine legacy: a new radical centre that concerns us all. It is about new forms of association and the economic and social opportunities that open up for us if we behave and operate differently. Properly understood, the Big Society is the most important innovation in British politics for decades and, if rightly instigated, it can resonate with the deep long-term wishes of the country, and that is quite simply for nothing other than social and economic renewal.

At least half this agenda is already widely accepted. Who now doubts that Britain needs a new economic model, one that localises and regionalises economic development, one that creates the opportunity for popular prosperity? What many on the liberal left doubt is the equal desire for social renewal – but this is the prejudice of a libertarian London elite and flies in the face of all analysis. For example, in 2008 just before the financial crisis broke, long-term trend analysis by Ipsos Mori showed that two-thirds of the public believed that Britain was "broken" and almost half were pessimistic about our future prospects. There is, and was, a strong sense of social breakdown in our country with, for example, perceived safety alone after dark the lowest in Western Europe, despite a real decline in violence. Inchoately, six in 10 thought things used to be better. All of which suggests a clear sense of social dislocation that the Big Society attempts to remedy.

So the current debate over cuts does not signal the death knell of the Big Society. The Government is bravely and rightly persisting with an idea whose time has come. The fact that it is only nine months old and is already so attacked by those who proffer no genuine alternatives should convince us of its merits. After all, the current bankruptcy of the state was delivered by a confluence and congruence of left and right orthodoxy, as embodied in New Labour's political economy: free the market from regulation and tax the proceeds for a bigger state. That this produced the centralised bubble economy of the last decade underwritten by a state guarantee should caution us that conventional assumptions are what caused the crisis and the deficit in the first place. The strength of the Big Society is its unprecedented scope for innovation – for changing the terms of the debate and the role of the state and citizen and shifting the private and public sector models of production, provision and consumption. Conceived properly, the Big Society could be the answer to the consternation that the public-sector cuts are causing.

The fact remains that we can't rebuild society without rebuilding the economy to support it: money and incentive has to follow pro-social choices and a pro-people state. The first step is for the state to stop being an agent of redistribution via tax, which only traps the poor in insufficient welfare and does nothing to decrease a widening equality gap, and to become instead a force for both promoting a wider distribution of capital assets and wealth. Here, public sector mutualisation and budgetary takeover by citizens of the state is a crucial initial phase in endowing ordinary citizens with the power to ensure that the services they run are operated in a way that combines public interest with economic efficiency and localised employee ownership building in all the gains that this models delivers. Such government-enabled schemes are now well under way. For example, there are now 21 Cabinet Office mutual pathfinders, with 20 organisations offering pro bono support to the pathfinders. These co-operative pathfinders vary from small groups of public servants to whole PCT provider arms – with more than 1,000 nurses, therapists and other health professionals. They include a wide variety of public services from community and acute healthcare, to social care, and culture and leisure services. To extend and augment this, the Mutuals Information Service, set up just over two months ago to help public sector bodies, is working – with more than 200 enquires.

Similarly, the drive to open up public procurement to charities and social enterprises will further assist the promotion of bottom-up prosperity, previously too much public procurement has gone to the same set of companies – a genuinely free market needs more competitors from the communities that those public services serve. Nor does this involve the uncoupling of money from human benefit. To the contrary, a Private Members Bill by Tory MP Chris White on Social Enterprise has made it through to Committee Stage; if successful it would require the awarding of public service contracts to take account of social value. Beyond these developments it is right to indicate that we need the private sector also to become more mutualised or reciprocal. This is not to dilute the market, but to fulfil the promise of pro-marketeers that a market is a "win-win", not a zero-sum game. Of course there are factor that could inhibit the new agenda. In particular, the drive for immediate cuts and deficit reduction is running too fast to give people the chance to take over the state and create the conditions for a civic economy. After all the provisions in the localism Bill driven forward by Greg Clark, the Minister for Decentralisation, giving communities the right to buy assets, challenge current service providers, and bid to run such provision instead has not yet become statute, but libraries and leisure centres are closing right now. The Big Society agenda is still not as widely grasped or realised across all departments as it should be – one important indication of the government's vision will be if the proposal from the Tory MP Charlie Elphicke to mutualise the port of Dover is accepted by the Department of Transport. Via a community trust, Elphicke has launched a £200m bid for the people of Dover to take over the port. This will enable anyone living or working locally become a member, and help, via the board, to govern and own the port. City institutions are prepared to finance the bid and it has the support of the ferry companies. This is no ill-thought through proposal, it embodies the radical Tory critique of privatisation that too much was passed to too few and exemplifies a new form of pro-social business where all can win. For example, the business plan provides for £100m to be invested in the port over the next five years with some £50m directed into local regeneration – something no wholly private bidder would offer.

And we should not be pessimistic – nobody ever thought this would be easy. The new and emergent models are beginning to prosper. As Ed Mayo CEO of co-operatives UK put it to me: "Co-operatives are enjoying a genuine renaissance at the moment, with high public trust and a level of commercial success that means that you can find co-ops in almost every sector of the market. I have just visited the Lincolnshire Consumer Co-operative, for example, which has 175,000 active members involved. It runs shops and pharmacies in villages across the county, has helped save the local football club and set it up as a co-operative owned by the fans. There is a real magic at work. It has scale, it has values, it has active members and it makes a huge difference."

The facts are: the UK has more than 4,990 independent co-operatives, owned by more than 12.9 million members – and the numbers keep on growing with a 24.6 per cent growth in turnover over the last three years and 17.8 per cent growth in membership over the past three years. More significantly – 75 per cent of people across the UK believe that co-operatives will act fairly as businesses, compared to only 18 per cent for companies at large.

Much of the recent wave of bad press Is the result of misdirectedhostility – the Big Society isn't about cuts – its about building the future we all want. Even one of charitable sectors most vociferous critics of the governments current action is a strong supporter of the Big Society idea. Stephen Bubb, chief of the charities umbrella group Acevo says: "Delivering power to citizens and communities is core to the Big Society concept; and it's central to charity mission. I salute the concept and want to see it driven forward through transformative change in public services that puts delivery in the hands of charities and social enterprises who better connect to people."

So which way now. Two years ago I argued in that the Tories have reinvented their social philosophy but were caught between repetition or renewal for their economic thinking. Rather than choosing, they seem to have done both. At theTreasury one feels they regard the Big Society with amused indifference, as if somehow it could not deliver genuine reduction in cost in return for efficiency gained – consequently the agenda they are following looks like Thatcherism redux with salami slicing of services and pushing cuts out to the front line – councils, for example, are maintaining services while abandoning non-statutory charitable provision . But Thatcherism II will only deliver the same result as Thatcherism I, a hugely unbalanced economy with widening inequality and little or no regional growth. Rather than rethinking or re-engineering the state, the current approach risks a smaller version of the dysfunctional state we already have – which hardly makes the most of the opportunity our current fiscal crisis represents. But on the other hand pro-social Tory thinking has genuinely advanced – new pro-ownership and anti-monopoly thinking is current – new ways to localise the economy and enable new models of economic association are being crafted, and all the while the barriers to market entry and extending wealth and prosperity are being discerned and challenged. So who will win? Well that requires a decision and leadership that can be used to augment and platform the new solutions we all need, not destroy the very social infrastructure that makes the transformation possible. We need connected thinking from government rather than conflicting approaches and I for one am not pessimistic about what agenda will win and what will result. In the end, people voted for the Prime Minister because of his vision of a better Britain – the Big Society can and will deliver that. The Big Society is dead – long live the Big Society.

Tessa Jowell: It's little more than a slogan

The Big Society is at the core of David Cameron's identity as a politician, his big idea to decontaminate the Tory brand. Determined not to be remembered simply for the cuts, he wants "the most radical shift in power that this country has seen in decades," where "the people and organisations acting for the state are directly accountable to the people that they are supposed to serve".

But it's become increasingly clear that the Big Society dream has no guiding definition. It has become all things to all ministers. While they may all be rolling back the frontiers of the state, there is no common theme as to what they are trying to put in its place. They may be turning public service provision on its head, but not in a way that puts communities in control.

In health, Andrew Lansley thinks the Big Society means more power for doctors and a price competitive market within the NHS. While Michael Gove talks of parent power in education, his plans for free schools hoard power centrally, making the Department for Education the final and only arbiter on where new schools are provided and who is allowed to build them.

At Defra, Caroline Spelman's great forest sell-off is perhaps the best expression of this confusion, declaring that the Big Society will give civil society groups the opportunity to buy or lease the forests that we already collectively own and use. Public hostility and outrage to these plans are erupting all round the country.

All these reforms will make these various public services less answerable to patients, parents and citizens – ending the ability of national and local government to hold them responsible for performance.

Last week the contradictory muddle surrounding the Big Society ambition descended into farce. First we were told that its architect, Nat Wei, had been forced to cut back on his volunteering at the Cabinet Office so that he could have "more of a life". Then we were told by its celebrity champion, Phil Redmond, that it had become a "big lecture" and little progress had been made locally.

And the week ended with Liverpool, its most high profile "vanguard", withdrawing as council funding cuts "cut the lifeline" to the hundreds of well-established community groups in the city.

And this week has begun in similar style, with Elisabeth Hoodless, the executive director of Community Service Volunteers, saying that the Government's draconian spending cuts are destroying volunteering, and with Danny Kruger, Cameron's former special adviser, saying that his former boss "should now step in to mitigate the pain felt by the local charities he claims to support".

Acevo, an organisation that represents charity groups, has estimated that the decisions already taken by this Government will cost charities £3.1bn per year by 2014-15. Over the coming months, it will become increasingly difficult for David Cameron to argue that the big society is being nurtured when the organisations and agencies which support community enterprise are laying off staff and reducing the services that they offer.

This is why David Cameron's hope that the Big Society would distract public attention from the cuts is so mistaken. His Government's decision to choose a course of savage cuts to charitable and community organisations is ideologically driven by a belief that communities alone, not communities supported and enabled by their local council, should provide the services that society needs.

The Big Society is also based on the myth that there are millions of volunteer hours waiting to be spent. There is no evidence for this, as the proportion of people involved in both formal and informal volunteering is relatively high and has remained pretty static over the past 10 years.

The Big Society as an ambition can reflect both the values of the progressive left and the old right. For the right, it defines self-sufficiency, rolling back the state, individualism. For the progressive left, on the other hand, it gives expression to community, solidarity and mutuality. But, lacking that balance, the coalition's Big Society plans are undermined by the way they reveal old right ideology, and have become indistinguishable from plans for cuts.

The reason the Big Society is imploding is because it is little more than an advertising slogan. While ministers are united in their desire to roll back the frontiers of the state, they're quite frankly less bothered about what if anything to put in its place. They might say that "we're all in this together," but what they really mean is that "it's your problem now, not ours".

Phillip Blond and the Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP will be discussing the Big Society at the Grand Committee Room, House of Commons on Monday. For more details go to

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