Is it time to stop bashing the big society?

by Dave Hodges

The “big society” sounds like one of those ill-defined phrases some policy wonk latches on to after some “blue sky thinking”. David Cameron may like to wax lyrical that his destiny in government is to create the big society, but to the casual observer it appears as nothing more than a well-intentioned sideshow that reveals the caring nature of our dear leader. It’s as if it was created to be attacked.

We know the rhetoric. Cameron argues that his aim is to shift power from central government to communities and to volunteers. Labour argues that the Tories’ devastating cuts undermine this very ideal and render it a mere smokescreen to hide Cameron’s real, more sinister intentions. Tessa Jowell rightly pointed out last week, in relation to the big society, that “under the indiscriminate impact of accelerated cuts, the essential elements of community life are slowly being starved of sustenance”.

It’s the right message, but the wrong target. There are some devastating cuts affecting the voluntary sector and providers of outsourced government programs. For instance, thousands marched on the “hardest hit” campaign, organised jointly by the disability benefits consortium and the UK disabled people’s council on the 11 May.

Many disabled people, those with long-term conditions and their families are seeing disgraceful cuts to the benefits and services they need to live their lives. We should be strongly arguing that this is wrong. But it’s not the big society to blame, it’s this government’s ill-considered bulldozer approach to cutting the deficit.

Aiming fire at the big society is not the answer. It is a positive, idealistic message that we sour with harsh home truths. We are the grumpy person in the corner who perks up adversely to criticise every time the opportunity arises.

We need a positive answer to the big society. How can the state enable voluntary organisations to flourish? How can it positively interact without the assumption of a top-down relationship? The state has a positive role to play in this, but importantly, not necessarily as the funder. Tom Gash has written an interesting article entitled government is not the only solution, which raises some valid points and gives an excellent example through “parent gyms”. These are organisations Labour needs to engage and learn from. In Lambeth, the cooperative council model is something the party should seek to explore further. Campaigning for more mutuals such as Chuka Umunna’s call for the re-mutualisation of Northern Rock is another avenue that should be studied in detail.

The big society seems like an easy target. Sometimes things are too easy. Focus our fire on destructive, unnecessary cuts where we find them. Focus our energy on providing a positive vision for what a big society, or whatever inimitable name we choose to give it, would look like.

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4 Responses to “Is it time to stop bashing the big society?”

  1. AmberStar says:

    Big society? Launch Labour’s version with an action plan not rhetoric about big schemes that depend on wealthy donors.

    Plan for a really good website for gathering & sharing information about getting involved in the local community. Get really good people to manage it, so that it doesn’t become a hotch potch of links to organisations that are defunct. Labour should lay out a clear vision of these Community Action Portal(s).
    Do we need to wait until we are in government, or is there any way to fund it whilst in opposition to show Labour are serious about gathering ideas & information, registering potential volunteers of the future etc?

    Labour councillors & MPs should commit a certain number of hours/ days per year to work with volunteer groups in their area. The Party to make sure they do not do only a single day volunteering with press in tow as a campaign tool! That would just be embarrassing & create cynicism about the whole idea.

    Layout an Involve the Experts Agenda. Recruit via professional associations, unions etc. Active or retired soclictors, accountants, architects, police, teachers etc.
    Many volunteers feel they lack the expertise in specialist fields & have nobody to ask. Experts volunteering directly for e.g. CAB limits their expertise to a few lucky clients. Share the knowledge wealth by recruiting expert volunteers to assist volunteers when they have questions & issues.

    What about social & housing association co-ops that have access to experts/ counsellors (not just councillors) that are on their side & can provide actual help when the co-op can’t resolve an issue? The co-op members should have the expert advice fully explained so that they can learn to deal with more issues themselves. Labour could lay out a clear plan for this.

    Think about not stopping people’s benefits for ‘being unavailable for work’, if they are volunteering with a registered/ approved charity or voluntary group? The charity/ group must be willing to provide time-records, if requested by the job center. Labour could lay out a clear plan of how this would work, how compliance procedures would be robust & easy etc. And where the line would be drawn to ensure that the volunteers were providing ‘extras’ to the community, not working in positions that should be an actual job.

    Think about how to encourage teachers, teaching assistants & parents to begin running homework clubs, art groups etc. Getting use of facilities & professional support when key volunteers are absent due to holidays, illness etc.
    It’s the lack of (emergency) back-up that discourages people. They don’t want to start something that will either dominate their entire life or result in them letting people down, if they are sick or on vacation or have a big project at work.

    Labour could set out a plan of how support could/ would be provided to allow volunteers time off without it being a drag on their project – maybe the support people could be on a semi-professional basis (it would need to costed & explained to the electorate as something worth every penny of the government & LA money needed to support it).

  2. AmberStar says:

    But it will never be time to stop bashing the Tory version of the Big Society. When there is a open target put right in front of you, don’t stop shooting!

  3. Robert Eve says:

    Unnecessary cuts?

    Which are they?

  4. Lee says:

    Big Society and any method that encourages volunteering should be encouraged.

    Unfortunately Labour has created a generation of lazy people who believe the government should give them everything, from benefits to compensation. Young people believe that it is their god given right to be handed everything on a plate. This is why most businesses employ immigrants (another problem created by Labour).

    After austerity follows prosperity, it’s sad that people have to loose jobs but unfortunately that is how the economy works. Had Labour still been in power, yes the cuts would have been less severe but then the recession that followed would have been a whole lot worse.

    People need to realise that the economy has always moved in cycles of boom and bust. L

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