We didn’t hear anything from David Cameron about The Big Society in last night’s TV Leaders’ Debate … which prompted David Barrie to tweet “Has all the #bigsociety stuff been negotiated out?
48hrs ago, it was the new revolution”. Maybe there wasn’t the right question from the studio audience to provide a peg … but things have generally gone quiet since the seminar on March 31, and the centrepiece statements in the Conservative manifesto. There’s been rather more fun from the spoofs. (see also my update below: should the Network stay with the BS brand?)).
After the initial announcements I found people engaged in neighbourhood action and community development rather bemused to find their work so warmly embraced by the Tories. Cautiously welcoming, but pointing out that the real test would be in how far the fully-developed policies take account of the messy realities. You can get so far with Saul Alinsky-style campaigning, and volunteer-led initiatives, but to make long term improvements in services you also need to work with local authorities. We didn’t hear much about that.
On March 31 David Cameron also helped launch The Big Society Network, as I reported here and here. Perhaps that would be able to supply some of the detail? Although Cameron and the founders, Nat Wei and Paul Twivy, maintained it would be an independent organisation, there was clearly a lot of common background.
The vision was just as bold as the Tory manifesto and seminar: complement the 5000 community organisers promised there with a mutual society building to a membership of 15 million active citizens, a budget of £3 million a year, and a knowledge-sharing system for anyway wanting to tackle local issues.
Again many activists I spoke to were prepared to welcome and work with the Network, provided it didn’t simply compete for resources and ignore the score of existing networks and thousands of projects already under way. I certainly believe the Network has great potential … provided those involved engage with others in the field and address the issues they are raising. I posted a set of questions and ideas on the Big Society Network blog a week ago. Since when – nothing. No response, no more blog posts.
I believe the Big Society Network people are, in fact, well aware of the issues their plans raise, and keen to engage … but their name is giving them a big problem.
If they dive in with details of how social action in the Big Society might work, they risk this being conflated with political arguments about the Conservative policies. If they keep quiet, people will cynically believe that they are just waiting to see whether their man Cameron gets the job.
I belive it is important that the Network takes the risk of engaging online and offline over the next few weeks … particularly since they put a lot of emphasis on the power of social media. You have to walk the talk to be taken seriously. Early impressions count. It is about style (attitudes, values) as well as substance. You can’t preach social action and refuse to socialise. Be transparent, open, participative. Come on guys, Network.
I think it should be possible for the Network to engage on two fronts:
- First, to join with others in developing a social space in which to discuss social action in a non-partisan way.
- Second, to find out more about who is already doing what, and commit to working together practically.
I think we’ll soon hear more about an event provisionally planned for May 25 when neighbourhood practitioners will get together to talk about The Big Society … with an invite to the Network to join in. That opens the way for a really exciting chance to start blending experience of local action over the past 30 years with some of the new ideas coming from the Network, the Tories, and other parties. It’s time to step outside the combatitive conventions of old-style election politics and start building some non-partisan alliances that will be robust whatever Government is in power.
Update: The Big Society “brand” took a knock today in The Times today with a story about Tory candidates and the projects they are working on: “Rising stars face questions on Tory community work” prompting a tweet #BigSociety ” built on sand? and a follow up from Dominic Campbell “also my point was the Tory #bigsociety policy says the right things but is shallow, hollow and unrealistic”.
The danger for the Tories is that their Big Society strategy is not credible unless it is founded on, and amplifies, the excellent work of existing organisations and networks. This connection is not spelled out in the manifesto, or yet in the Network. It could all unravel unless someone begins to develop some substance, making the Network difficult to develop. Should the Network stay with the Big Society brand?