Laugh at the Tories, not the Big Society, says Andy Westwood

It has been very easy to pour scorn on David Cameron’s big idea. I have done it myself. Launched in the election campaign, it bombed on the doorstep and among the media. Most people had little or no idea what he was talking about and those who did assumed that he was just trying to make something more substantial from his line about society not being the same thing as the state.

Mixed with its rejection of Margaret Thatcher’s anti-society stance and the implication that this was a changed, more compassionate Conservative party, this was the line that team Cameron thought would seal the deal with the electorate. It didn’t and he didn’t either.  It is fair to say that the Big Society still has some work to do to bring around the doubters.

And yet, it persists as one of the coalition’s big ideas. Cameron has relaunched it quickly with few changes – but this time from Downing Street and with more attention from the chattering classes than before. It reminded me a little of Cool Britannia, so we’ll forgive the curiosities of those who went along to listen and be photographed.

But what should be Labour’s response now – more cynicism, derision and scorn? That would be easy. But the Big Society does offer us a political and intellectual challenge that should help us to form a more convincing narrative of community and of our fundamental social and economic values.

One of the attractions for Cameron and his Big Society acolytes has been to find an expression and a home for social capital theory – anything from Robert Putnam to Jane Jacobs and more lately a little Philip Blond. “Social capital” basically describes the social networks, levels of trust and connections within communities that ultimately help to improve social, physical and economic conditions as well as the life chances of those where it exists.

But there’s the massive challenge that the Tories haven’t yet acknowledged: social capital and the Big Society will always be stronger in better off places. You can already find it in Tunbridge Wells, Notting Hill and Meriden.

Much more important is whether building social capital and/or the Big Society can help to turn more deprived or just less well off communities around.  Places that have been increasingly dislocated from the prosperity experienced elsewhere.  Towns and neighbourhoods with poor health, low skills, inadequate housing and transport and high levels of dereliction, deprivation, unemployment and crime.  Mining or industrial towns, seaside resorts, inner cities.

And this is where Cameron’s argument falls apart.  Social capital – especially building community capacity and wealth in more deprived parts of the country – is the focus of his ‘Broken Britain’ story. Nor can the role and importance of the community in local economic development be overlooked. What is required is an explicit focus on creating stronger, more cohesive communities by building and enhancing human, physical and social capital.

Social capital works best (as does the third sector) when it can combine with other things. Basically that comes down to two things: private wealth and public investment. By private wealth I mean secure wages that are locked into communities – sometimes wages paid by the public sector. And by public and private investment I mean assets that are built and sustained within communities. That includes schools, sure start centres, polyclinics or surgeries, local council services and facilities and also private sector businesses.

It also includes the education and skills of everyone in those communities – from the kids at primary schools to the parents and adults who left education with little or nothing to show for it. This is heavy lifting on a massive scale – investment in education and training, infrastructure and in broader community assets as well as in businesses and jobs.

Help comes from surprising places.  Large Tesco Regeneration stores (if you don’t believe me go to Leeds, Newham, Durham, Cannock, Rochdale and see); or even locally franchised fast food outlets like McDonalds, Subway or KFC will help.

These businesses produce social capital and wages (as well as investment) in the same way that the pits and factories did. So too do the pubs and post offices and other small businesses that help to anchor wealth and build community.  Older industries might have produced the brass bands and male voice choirs that helped to build trust and a community’s social wellbeing – but you’ll find that today’s businesses are giving life to plenty of football and darts teams, to choirs and glee clubs and subsequently to the ties that help bind a community together.

Of course public sector employers have always done this too. Society may not be the same as the state or the economy but having active investment in the latter surely helps.

To develop a credible response to the Big Society, there are significant challenges for the Labour movement. First, we need to take it seriously. It may be as flaky as the proclamation of a new politics or as insulting as accusations of a Broken Britain, but we need to prove that we understand this much better than they do.

Second, we need to develop a much better story about community. We understand our communities better than David Cameron and Ian Duncan Smith ever will and we know what makes places tick. But we haven’t been very successful at developing or telling a convincing story that proves this.

We have to shed the language that we too easily absorbed in government. We may have had a story of welfare reform, of skills, of tax credits, of public sector investment, of supporting business – but we failed to tell the story of community – of how all of these things could and did come together to improve our most deprived communities and our wider society. Levels of investment, statistics and technical detail is a poor substitute for how tangible this should feel when people look around the world in which they live.

The lessons from our communities and from the literature on social capital show that building and rebuilding stronger, more cohesive, more resilient communities is a worthy, but challenging aim. But it can’t be done on the cheap. Cutting services – whether through a reduced local government finance, or reducing employment and training opportunities won’t help build or sustain a Big Society.  A Big Society won’t fill the vacuum created by job losses, disappearing wages or services and facilities closing down.

Prolonged investment in education will – from early years to adult skills; investment in services and facilities as well as local jobs and businesses in the public and private sector will also help to turn communities around. This is how we must make and win this argument.

But David Cameron is at least partly right.  Social capital or community capacity cannot be created or sustained from outside. We can’t send in policies or build society from above. Nor can we do it with technocratic interventions or explanations developed in Whitehall. The language of ‘market failure’ or community empowerment or even of anti-social behaviour doesn’t cut it.

Communities and residents have the strongest understanding, ability and motivation to shape their neighbourhoods for the better. They also have a better, more believable language. Fortunately most have been as perplexed by the idea that a bigger society might somehow help them to find work, to provide better lives for their kids or to reduce crime in their neighbourhoods as they have been by some of our narratives.

So our response should not be to deride or even to counter the Big Society with the abstract.  It should be a response that is both practical and recognisable in the ambitions and day to day lives of people and their communities. They don’t understand or want a Big Society, but they do want a better and fairer one.

Andy Westwood was a special adviser to Labour ministers. He is chair of the OECD’s Forum on Social Innovation. You can read more in the recent OECD study ‘Community capacity building: creating a better future together‘.

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9 Responses to “Laugh at the Tories, not the Big Society, says Andy Westwood”

  1. Ben C says:

    Thanks for a great article. As someone who has found it easy to mock the Big Society (, I think Andy is right – Labour needs to respond to this seriously. One of the key things is to re-configure the idea of the state. It will no doubt be pilloried for the next few years of Lib-Conism, but Labour needs to demonstrate how the state is a good thing, is part of people’s lives in a beneficial way. The Lib-Con will make the argument that we can all solve our own problems – Labour needs to argue (and have the policy ideas) that we are better and stronger when we work together and contribute (a key word!) to the public good.

  2. Betapolitics says:

    This is the best Labour critique of ‘Big Society’ that iv read. Being a Tory who strongly supports the ideas that have become labelled as Big Society I want to make a couple of points. Firstly, for me its not about doing more for less. Its about doing better with what we have. The cuts that will happen are separate from this agenda. I wish we were trying to implement ‘Big Society’ in an economic environment equivalent to 1997 but we have a huge deficit that needs to be dealt with.

    Secondly, one of the ideas behind ‘Big Society’ is that the state has disempowered people by disconnecting them from decisions which impact on their lives. Essentially Labour over centralised and were obsessed with quantative targets rather than qualitative evidence. I agree with your analysis that if it was a free for all then the middle classes, who already run more neighbour watches ect, will be the only ones to take advantage. But part of the idea is that government agencies help communities to grow before devolving responsibility. If this doesn’t happen the government will still provide a safety net.

    Good luck in trying to do the ‘Big Society’ better. If Labour can succeed at this then we all win.

  3. James Ruddick says:

    I thought this was an excellent article. But the breakdown of community has also been caused by things which do not feature on the radar when this issue is discussed – the growth of the internet, the growth of television, the growth of video games, the colossal growth in car sales. All of these things separate people from each other. I remember Bill Clinton worrying about the “information superhighway” as it was then called because he felt it would lead to people becoming disenfranchised from their neighbours and neighbourhoods – everyone sat at home on their computers instead of engaging in old fashioned communal activities. The same is true of the car – zillions of enclosed, private little boxes all travelling in the same direction at the same time, where once people travelled together on buses or trains. None of these things are as obvious or dramatic as poverty, unemployment, drugs etc. But they play an integral part in changing the emphasis and patterns in our psychology from communal to individual.

  4. Praguetory says:

    ” We understand our communities better than David Cameron and Ian Duncan Smith ever will and we know what makes places tick. ”

    Some of us saw Austin Mitchell on Tower Block Of Commons.

  5. Mike Killingworth says:

    Excellent comment, James. It is precisely the point you make in your last sentence that shows why Blond, as a social theorist, is slightly less perceptive than Eeyore.

    Two further immediate problems come to mind. First, Tesco and Kentucky Fried Chicken “help” to build communities in exactly the same way that Rupert Murdoch “helps” people to understand politics. It would be more honest to say: ooh look, we’ve got this enormous deficit, never again can we use the State to tackle poverty, misery and inequality – I’m going to leave the Labour Party and join the Tories. The Tories came up with a “Big Idea” which everybody ridiculed – so Labour’s response should be to take it seriously?

    Second, all the examples given of areas where “Big Society” works are not only well-to-do, meaning that the problems are smaller and there are well-educated people with the time to – for example – study every planning application in detail but they are also ethnically homogenous.

    One way to revitalise many run-down areas would be to hand them over to Muslim Development Corporations jointly financed by the UK and Saudi governments, with an understanding that they would secede from the UK about the same time that Scotland does. Doesn’t appeal? No, not to me either – but it would work in its own terms.

  6. Thanks for this, Andy. Very good.

    Kendal, for the most part, is as rich in social capital as you say Tunbridge Wells, Notting Hill and Meriden are. You don’t have to spend long there to be impressed by its sense of community and appetite for volunteerism.

    However, if you canvass its more challenged neighbourhoods, as I did during the General Election, you certainly wouldn’t think that an overextended state is crowding out the little platoons that would meet these challenges – and this is, as I said, in a town well enamoured with social capital. Instead, the unifying theme of doorstep comment is for the state to do its job better: improve access to social housing; tackle anti-social behaviour; provide adequate transport to and from hospital appointments; and so on.

    While not all of these problems can be solved by the state alone, no matter how intelligently it acts, none of them would be solved by the state simply exiting. It, obviously, isn’t an either/or between state and society, as is suggested both by the Big Society argument in its crudest form and by lazy Labour rebuttals of this argument.

    It’s not about the state crowding out society, as the crudest Big Society argument holds. It’s not about the state having all the answers either, as the laziest Big Society rebuttal claims. It’s about the state becoming more responsive and adaptive to liberate the potential of society.

    Now, Labour needs to find ways of saying and doing that which go beyond my policy wonk terminology of responsiveness and adaptability. These ways won’t come from policy wonks like me. But they might come from listening harder to the doorstep and re-imaging the state in light of what we hear on the doorstep. What it is about, in other words, is the state unlocking the potential of society by being able and prepared to meet society on its own terms. The most encouraging Labour policy developments, like the move towards co-operative councils, seem based on this insight.

  7. Bla bla says:

    I really hope I am wrong but I fear that the Tories big society means cutting back on services and a heavier reliance on the voluntary sector. Case in point – job clubs run by volunteers. Fine as an added extra but what if it gets to a point where that is the service? The voluntary sector can be unstable and relies on the strength of its volunteers. If the volunteers cannot be there, because they are not paid to be there, or the service is overun, because they cannot afford to expand to meet need, then already disadvantaged people further lose out on services.

  8. Nick Isles says:

    Excellent article and indeed the best critique from the left of the Big Society idea. Critical to everything is cash. If you don’t have it social capital tends to wane. It’s Maslowian. We need to develop an index that can measure levels of social capital against average area incomes/wealth and its distribution. At the heart of this debate is the white elephant about re-distribution. Put bluntly the UK is a welfarist society that likes an enabling state. It is not little America with its philanthropic traditions. Interestingly philanthropy has waned in the US since the recession….

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