A short history of the ‘Big Society’, and how to respond to it


1:34 pm - September 21st 2010

by Don Paskini    


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Every time I read a well meaning Labour activist argue that “Labour needs to move beyond the belief that the state can do everything and develop a response to the Big Society”, it makes me sad.

Here is a quick history of events which contributed to the development of the Big Society:

In the 1970s and 1980s, radical/loony lefties set up a wide range of communuity groups to empower people and deliver a wide range of innovative services. The Tories and their Right Wing allies denounced them in the most vicious terms.

Between 1997 and 2010, Labour created space and put in place policies to enable literally thousands of voluntary groups to flourish, with huge new opportunities to deliver services and to improve local neighbourhoods. The Tories ignored this, because they were more interested in banging on about immigrants and tax cuts.

In 2009, a small group of public relations professionals at the top of the Tory Party – none of whom had any experience of voluntary action – announced something called the ‘Big Society’, a vague, top down initiative which attempted to claim credit for the insight that voluntary groups had a role to play in delivering services and improving communities.

In 2011, thousands of voluntary and community groups will be wiped out by the savage cuts which the Tory government is inflicting on us.

An even shorter history of the Tories and the Big Society:

First they denounced it.
Then they ignored it.
Then they claimed credit for it.
Then they cut it.

* * * * *

That’s all very well, the anguished Labour activists might reply, but how to respond?

First of all, don’t repeat Tory spin. There isn’t anything new about the idea of getting local voluntary groups to deliver services, organise communities and all the rest of it, and it is interesting that the Tories were so out of touch with civil society that they thought that they had come up with a new idea. The person who did more than anyone else over the past thirty years to enable voluntary groups to flourish was Gordon Brown.

One of the first acts of the coalition was to axe a scheme which let voluntary groups hire young, unemployed people doing exactly the kinds of jobs which the Big Society aims to create.

Secondly, oppose savage and unnecessary cuts to the voluntary sector. David Cameron said last week that local charities should not face spending cuts, while slashing budgets to local authorities by 30%. If the government really believes in the Big Society, it needs to give voluntary groups time to explore how they could sustain and develop their work with alternative sources of funding – from individual donations to social impact bonds, payment by results and all the rest.

Withdrawing government funding and then expecting groups immediately to be able to find other sources of funding (including some such as social impact bonds which have never actually been proven to work in practice) is totally unrealistic. A much better option would be to continue government funding for voluntary groups at the same levels for a further two years, giving them time to plan and develop alternatives.

Thirdly, support the government when they do the right thing. The review of regulations will probably come up with some sensible ideas, such as reducing overly onerous requirements on Criminal Records Bureau checks for staff and volunteers. Just because Labour did a lot to help voluntary action, there were some things that the last government did wrong.

Lastly, the main problem with the Big Society, despite its rhetoric, is that it is a top down initiative, developed by a few wealthy and powerful people who have little understanding of social action. In its place, we should build up a response from the grassroots.

We should start with the knowledge and expertise of the people who work and volunteer in local communities, using this to inform our policies and actions in everything from how to tackle poverty and increase the number of good jobs, to how to provide better quality services, to improving health and living sustainably.

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Fight the cuts ,Westminster

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Reader comments


This is an eminently sensible post, and one which I totally agree with.

Dr Shibley Rahman FRSA (@shibleylondon)

Don,

I think your analysis goes astray at “In the 1970s and 1980s, radical/loony lefties set up a wide range of communuity groups to empower people and deliver a wide range of innovative services.”

I am not sure that the 70s and 80s community groups have anything much to do with the Cameron vision of the Big Society. That is your comparison, not one I have heard from the Conservative party. There is a world of difference between selective empowerment and devolution of power over services, which is how I would suggest the two movements are best characterised. Where the last government’s reforms fit in there I am not sure.

Still, nice to see constructive ways forward that I would not disagree with offered.

I find I agree entirely with this article. And that is a very rare thing.

The fact is that community and charity groups are going to suffer badly over the coming few years. They are going to be able to do far far less and they are not being given the time and flexibility to find new funding or ways of working that will allow them to continue to thrive as they have started to do under Labour in recent years.

I don’t want to dimiss the “Big Society” as some slogan and nothing more. I think the ideas that swirl around it are pretty much fine – even if in reality it just combines and packages a lot of ideas and developments that happened in the last decade.

But whether it is well meaning or just spin – it is undermined somewhat by the Government’s haste and seeming lack of understanding of how such small movements work day to day.

4. Manning The Pumps

Don Paskini,

Can you give us a brief CV of your voluntary activities that qualify you to know more than the designers of the Big Society?

5. Manning The Pumps

Oh, and who specifically do you think designed it, and what facts do you have about their voluntary experience?

Manning the Pumps @4,

To be fair, regardless of Don’s CV he is qualified to speak as a member of society (how big that society is remains to be determined).

“Every time I read a well meaning Labour activist argue that “Labour needs to move beyond the belief that the state can do everything and develop a response to the Big Society”, it makes me sad.”

Mea probably culpa, but Labour does need to make sure it doesn’t look like a bunch of knee-jerk statists. I agree that this doesn’t mean patiently educating the party in the existence of things called ‘voluntary groups’. And I reckon your four points are basically sound, although I’m not too concerned about rehabilitating Gordon Brown’s reputation.

Isn’t the point of the “Big Society”, inasmuch as it has one, to move away from (top-down) “designers”?

“Can you give us a brief CV of your voluntary activities that qualify you to know more than the designers of the Big Society?”

Not to anonymous blog commentators, no. Rather than feeble ad hominems, how’s about having a go at explaining which bits of the article you disagree with?

“Isn’t the point of the “Big Society”, inasmuch as it has one, to move away from (top-down) “designers”?”

Yes, which makes its design all the more ironic (David Cameron and Steve Hilton tell us about how we should run our voluntary organisations).

An example. They recently went to Liverpool to announce that Liverpool would be one of the four “vanguard” areas for the Big Society. Guess how many voluntary groups in Liverpool were told before the announcement that their city had been chosen?

Hi Tom,

Not aimed at you particularly – there have been lots of people (Peter Watt, Demos, open Kingdom, Neal Lawson) all arguing that Labour are a bunch of statists and the Big Society is on to something new. Your blog was (as ever) informed and well argued.

Hi watchman,

Thanks as ever for thoughtful comments

“There is a world of difference between selective empowerment and devolution of power over services, which is how I would suggest the two movements are best characterised.”

Interesting, but I think there is more overlap than that. Many of the charities which deliver innovative local services and which the BigSoc wants to get more involved in public service delivery were started during the 1970s and 1980s, and/or first developed thanks to grants from Labour-run councils such as Haringey (which spends roughly £15 per person on grants to voluntary groups).

13. Manning The Pumps

I disagree with this:

“Lastly, the main problem with the Big Society, despite its rhetoric, is that it is a top down initiative, developed by a few wealthy and powerful people who have little understanding of social action.”

unless you can provide some specific evidence to back that claim.

Interesting set of comments above, showing a very high standard of peer review! This post has inspired me to ask people what they understand by ‘The Big Society’.

I for one would be interested to know what the ‘non-experts’ feel. Please bear in mind that 90% of my friends are left-wing!

http://dr-shibley-rahman.socialgo.com/members/profile/1/blog-view/blog_1.htm

Best wishes

@shibleylondon

15. Manning The Pumps

Also, if you had any sort of voluntary CV you would say so. # fail

The Big Society was first announced by David Cameron in 2009:

http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2009/11/David_Cameron_The_Big_Society.aspx

It was then relaunched in April, May and June 2010:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Society

At the time when it was announced, the Tories had not involved any people at the grassroots who are involved in voluntary action in developing the ideas behind the Big Society. The only people involved were David Cameron, Steve Hilton and a few of their advisers.

To date, there still haven’t been any opportunities for people on the ground to contribute to shaping the priorities of the Big Society. In September 2010, Lord Wei gave a presentation to the Cabinet Office about how the Big Society will work in practice. Again there was no public consultation informing this proposal.

17. Manning The Pumps

“At the time when it was announced, the Tories had not involved any people at the grassroots who are involved in voluntary action in developing the ideas behind the Big Society. The only people involved were David Cameron, Steve Hilton and a few of their advisers.”

How do you know for sure who was involved?

Which advisors specifically?

18. Gaf the Horse

Isn’t the big difference that the original idea of encouraging voluntary service worked alongside the state, whereas the new Tory idea of the Big Society is to replace the state? (Have a look here for the Tory idea of how this works, http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/news/8396730.Talks_to_be_launched_over_library_dispute/)

I don’t know exactly which advisers help David Cameron write his speeches. The thing to understand is that the Big Society was first mentioned in a speech by a politician, and over the past year its agenda has been developed by other politicians, rather than by local people who are involved in voluntary action at the grassroots.

This is all publicly available information, and is not remotely politically contentious.

Top post donpaskini.

It’s particularly regrettable that many local councils dealing with cuts to funding are likely to distinguish between statutory and discretionary services and, given that much funding of the voluntary sector is discretionary, it may be first in line for the chop.

If there is to be devolution of power over services, I find it difficult to imagine volunteers switching from the activities they currently support with their time and effort, to cover for what is currently done by paid employees.

Don,

Many of the charities which deliver innovative local services and which the BigSoc wants to get more involved in public service delivery were started during the 1970s and 1980s, and/or first developed thanks to grants from Labour-run councils such as Haringey (which spends roughly £15 per person on grants to voluntary groups).

I won’t disagree with that, but then one would expect that the Big Society would have to have groups founded and run by people of all persuasions (and none) to be representative of society. As far as I understand the concept (which is so vague I cannot but help support it at the moment) it will however encourage more new groups arising to address local issues (so arguably like Haringey, although there is a bit of a tendency towards identity politics there, at least stereotypically). I think the difference I see is that many voluntary groups are also implicitly or explicitly campaiging, whilst the Big Society is explicitly about local services. I could be wrong however – what we are discussing is not yet firmly enough fixed for me to be sure of my impression!

As long as the state takes on the responsibility for fulfilling all needs, either directly or through funding proxies, there is no requirement for individuals to act altruistically and develop a sense of responsibility to society or duty towards their fellow men.

Why give to a charity, for example, when you know that most of the charity’s funding is provided by government with money you have already contributed in taxation?

Why volunteer and provide your labour free of charge when the organisation you will work for is run by paid Local Authority officials?

One problem with the Fabian vision of state provision of everything to everyone according to need is that the beaurocracies that expand to provide the necessary services are highly inefficient and wasteful.

The second problem is that the effect on the population is ultimately stultifying. Once a few generations have grown up with the mindset that it is the duty of the state to look after their welfare from cradle to grave, the population become incapable of self help. Some become incapable of doing anything at all.

The idea of the “big society” is to counter the above by empowering individuals and re-creating communities capable again of doing things for themselves. Once the voluntary organisations and other groups have had the dead hand of state funding and the accountability to beaurocracy removed, we will see this happen. And it will be a bottom up phenomenon.

It is also worth noting that the most vehement opposition to the big society concept comes from those with a personal vested interest in maintaining the state apparatus.

Would you not agree, Don?

23. the a&e charge nurse

I hate to tell you this but the ‘Big Society’ is little more than a strap line (leaving aside the ebb and flow of activity amongst voluntary organisations for a moment).
Remember the purpose of a strap line is to emphasize a phrase that an organisation wishes to be remembered by, particularly for marketing a specific corporate image or connection to a product or consumer base.

If there was such a thing, how on earth would we know – I mean what are we meant to be measuring?

In the age of spin, and reality TV I can see why a puff of smoke like the ‘Big Society’ might appeal, but to my mind it’s little more than a diversionary tactic while the coalition gets on with the real business of finalising it’s austerity package.

Labour could do worse than remind the electorate that the cuts might hurt YOU but they are unlikely to hurt Dave, Nick, or their inner circle.
Meanwhile the gap between aspiration and reality (when it comes to contributing to the ‘Big Society’) has already been nicely highlighted on LC
http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/08/22/tories-want-us-to-volunteer-but-dont-have-time-themselves/

A&e

Can we refrain from calling it spin until they’ve actually rolled something out (or say a year after the election, when we can see it was actually a load of guff mad up to sound caring). For me, this is in some way a key test of how to take the new government, whose general laid back nature (i.e. they are not announcing new measures all the time) means I have little beyond the coalition agreement to go on.

25. the a&e charge nurse

[23] OK, maybe spin is not the right word, but I’m afraid I still regard the concept with suspicion – why, I hear you say.

Well, part of the problem is I don’t really see D-Cam as a man of conviction.
For better or worse we all knew were we stood with the likes of Thatch (for example).

At best the BS (that’s big society, not bullshit) is a holding measure while the coalition find their metier – let’s see how it pans out?

I’m with a&e charge nurse on this one @22: we’ve had this debate already, so it’s very much old wine in new bottles.

We don’t have to wait on the full roll out to know the Big Society is a cover for letting the rich off the hook, and making the rest of us pay for it, tug our forelocks and be jolly thankful we have anything at all when they starte deconstructing the welfare state.

A&e @ 24,

I think, allowing for the proviso that I think we may be surprised by David Cameron’s conviction (he certainly seems less populist in reaction than the last government, which has to be a plus), that your last point is pretty accurate.

Galen 10,

Whilst you’re standing on yon hill, looking down at t’satanic mills, do you want to remember that we are in the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth? For a start, I’m pretty certain most of us don’t wear forlocks any more (or in my case, its currently too gelled to actually tug properly).

28. the a&e charge nurse

[26] ah, the centuries roll on – but ancient power relationships remain fairly constant, if you accept Michels ‘iron law’?
“As soon as people form organizations, power in those organizations gravitates upwards towards the permanent officials or officers. A second, subordinate law suggests that whatever purpose an organization was originally established to serve, the preservation of the organization itself, and of its oligarchy, will come to take precedence”.
http://www.politicsprofessor.com/politicaltheories/iron-law-of-oligarchy.php

In fact, Watchman haven’t you just made this exact point (about bureaucracy) on this thread;
http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/09/20/watch-johann-hari-at-anti-pope-rally-we-are-pro-catholic/

26

Yeah, keep telling yourself that when the Big Society comes to fruition and the poor are left to the tender mercies of voluntary groups and charity. It’s the biggest con trick since Thatcher’s Francis of Assisi moment, or NuLabour’s “things Can Only Get Better”.

30. Manning The Pumps

“I don’t know exactly which advisers help David Cameron write his speeches. The thing to understand is that the Big Society was first mentioned in a speech by a politician, and over the past year its agenda has been developed by other politicians, rather than by local people who are involved in voluntary action at the grassroots.”

You have absolutely no idea if that statement is true or not.

You have just made it up to suit your post, it’s very sub-standard blogging on a site of this profile.

The tory big society does not exist. They have just nicked the name from LBJ’s Great society.

This is just an excuse to get people to work for nothing, which would allow rich people to pay less tax.

Same old tories, nothing new here.

I thought it was a shame you didn’t include any references in your first half, but I liked your ideas for a counter-campaign.
Agree with @22 too.

@24 the a&e charge nurse: “Well, part of the problem is I don’t really see D-Cam as a man of conviction. For better or worse we all knew were we stood with the likes of Thatch (for example).”

We *thought* we knew where we were under Thatcher, but her words did not match her actions. State intervention in personal matters increased, state spending increased (largely owing to unemployment costs) and government meddled in the economy. The dismantling of the UK coal industry was an act of ill considered spite, given unemployment costs and the decision to close or sell economically viable collieries.

The social conservatism that we associate with the 1980s party is not reflected in the attitudes of Thatcher herself, who was supportive of gay Conservative activists and defended abortion rights. (Her ability to face in two directions simultaneously was particularly contemptible.)

As for David Cameron, I don’t know who he is either. However, he does seem to have gained some muscle in his dealings with the illiberal wing of his party.

Good posting.

Don,

Sure, but will the Right play by the rules?

Kingsley Manning, a partner in Tribal’s healthcare business says:

“The opportunities for the sector may come when NHS trusts who have been told they must become foundation trusts fail. Then there will be a chance for the private sector to step in.”

This is what the Big Society is about. I respect what you’ve said, and Chris Cook over at LL has suggested that the Big Society should be an opportunity for the Left. I am just too cynical to believe that Tory + NHS could ever come out good. It is about small state, privatisation and big profits for the corporations. Simple as that.

36. the a&e charge nurse

[32] “We *thought* we knew where we were under Thatcher, but her words did not match her actions” – true, but the difference, and it’s an important difference is that it wasn’t through want of trying, but more the law of intended consequences?

I recommend John Grays take on it – ‘MT and the euthanasia of conservatism’: in JG’s ‘Anatomy’ (although I’m sure shatterface will be horrified).

Remember Thatch was particularly scornful of Local Authorities and, aided by right wing think tanks, introduced the dreaded Poll Tax, but more importantly was responsible for dismantling the old economy (exemplified by the miners strike, and battle against the unions) in order to stimulate market forces.

Well, I looked into the sociology literature and came up with this illuminating analysis in 1967 by the late Professor WJH Sprott:

“The answer to the first question – ‘What is a society?’ is that it is a figment of the imagination. . . The fact is that in physics and chemistry you start with lumps of matter; you then analyse things into their chemical elements, into different combinations of entities, protons and the like. Far from being directly acquainted with the elements, it is not unknown for philosophers to question the existence of them. Equally nonsensical is it to say that we have a direct acquaintance with society. We do not. We have direct acquaintance only with people interacting, ie the elements of society, in so far as as it exists at all, is constituted. So I say that society is in some sense a figment of imagination. But we do in fact have in our minds models of the society in which we live. You can, if some foreigner asks questions about your society, refer to your model – not a very clear one perhaps; ‘scheme’ would be a better word in use. But you have some sort of model with its political system, economic system, legal system, religious system class system and so on. You have some sort of model in your mind of the society in which you live and, if you go abroad, you prepare a model which you hope will correspond in some sort of way with the society they happen to have.”

[Source: “Society: what is it and how does it change?” from The Educational Implications of Social and Economic Change (HMSO 1967), reprinted in: DF Swift (ed): Basic Readings in the Sociology of Education (Routledge, 1970)]
If so, it seems that Mrs T was more nearly correct that David Cameron.

@35 the a&e charge nurse: “[Thatcher] introduced the dreaded Poll Tax, but more importantly was responsible for dismantling the old economy (exemplified by the miners strike, and battle against the unions) in order to stimulate market forces.”

I think those are all good examples of irrational acts. Reform of local government funding, industrial relations, nationalised industry, economic stimulus, whatever were valid ambitions. But the ways in which change was performed was unfair, uneconomical and unrealistic.

Thatcher was presented to us as a level headed analyst who would cut through the craziness of the past and deliver a common sense future. Most of us would agree that her acts did not achieve this. A lot of the stuff was simply bonkers.

The Big Society is not yet proven to be bonkers. When first presented by Cameron, it didn’t mean anything and I criticised it at the time. But if the coalition is serious when they say “you run it”, I see it as an opportunity for voluntary organisations to develop not an impediment. The proof will be in the pudding.

39. Donut Hinge Party

We have still to hear a single jot about how the ‘Big Society’ will encourage volunteerism. Are we talking about helping with marketing costs? Tax breaks for time spent in the voluntary sector – like the TA? The cabinet wearing jackets emblazoned with ‘Nempnett Thrubwell Donkey Sanctuary?’

We haven’t heard anything about it, but in the midst of this deafening silence, one thing is even less addressed.

What will these services, which are currently provided by salaried staff, do when they have no volunteers? What censure is there when a volunteer – who has been trained and vetted at great expense by the organisation – gets bored, and just doesn’t turn up one day. Or worse, turns up and does such a poor job that they do the organisation a disservice?

40. Just Visiting

Donut

I’m not sure your point – that we shouldn’t expect volunteers to do a good job? So should plan to just phase out voluntary work of any kind?

Yes, there are many voluntary organisations that increasingly struggle to find good volunteers.

That may be an inditement on our cozy,well-off western lifestyles..the TV + Facebook are just to engrossing…

It may be an inditement of the welfare state, that we expect the state to do it all now.

It may be a parallel to the decreasingly religious values of the country over the last decades – spiritual motivations are declining?

But either way – your point that some organisations may suffer if their volunteers are absent or do a poor job – is true, but not very revealing.

41. Just Visiting

Interestingly, I’ve rubbed shoulders with the volunteers in our local Refugee Action Network: and about 2/3rds of them are church goers. It’s a secular organisation, so that is a striking percentage.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    A short history of the 'Big Society', and how to respond to it http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  2. sunny hundal

    A short history of the 'Big Society', by @donpaskini – and thoughts on how to respond to it http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  3. Don Paskini

    RT @sunny_hundal: A short history of the 'Big Society', by @donpaskini – and thoughts on how to respond to it http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  4. TeresaMary

    @NCVO cld learn something by reading this! RT @libcon: A short history of the 'Big Society', and how to respond to it http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  5. TeresaMary

    RT @libcon: A short history of the 'Big Society', and how to respond to it http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  6. Mehdi Hasan

    RT @sunny_hundal: A short history of the 'Big Society', by @donpaskini – and thoughts on how to respond to it http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  7. SMS PolicyWatch

    RT @libcon: A short history of the 'Big Society', and how to respond to it http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  8. sunny hundal

    If you haven't read it yet, this post by @donpaskini on The Big Society is spot on http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  9. Michael Devlin

    RT @sunny_hundal: If you haven't read it yet, this post by @donpaskini on The Big Society is spot on http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  10. Dave Plummer

    A short history of the ‘Big Society’, and how to respond to it | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/brnsEbf via @libcon #condem #nocuts

  11. Lauren Edwards

    RT @sunny_hundal: If you haven't read it yet, this post by @donpaskini on The Big Society is spot on http://bit.ly/aPLVtr < agreed

  12. bethan john

    A short history of the ‘Big Society’, and how to respond to it | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/RQ9r4Ql via @libcon

  13. elgan

    RT @bethanjohn: A short history of the ‘Big Society’, and how to respond to it | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/RQ9r4Ql via @libcon

  14. DrMekon

    RT @sunny_hundal: If you haven't read it yet, this post by @donpaskini on The Big Society is spot on http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  15. elgan

    I wld lke explicit explanation frm some1: what the bs is and hw itll b implemented RT @libcon history 'Big Society' http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  16. David Wall-Jones

    A short history of the 'Big Society', and how to respond to it http://bit.ly/aPLVtr

  17. Slaminsky

    'First they denounced it.Then they ignored it.Then claimed credit for it.
    Then they cut it.' History of Big Society http://bit.ly/a1mP7J

  18. Colby Brady

    A short history of the 'Big Society', and how to respond to it … http://bit.ly/kQAnkO

  19. Douglas Wilson

    A short history of the 'Big Society', and how to respond to it … http://bit.ly/lCzwn0

  20. blogs of the world

    Lastly, the main problem with the Big Society, despite its rhetoric, is that it is a top d… http://reduce.li/6g13a9 #society





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