Activists approve Tory Big Society, taxpayers object. Must be interesting

David Cameron seems to have successfully pulled off the first part of his launch of the Big Society – focussed on neighbourhood-based voluntary action – by getting broad approval from a Guardian commentator as well as the Telegraph, a seasoned community development specialist, and even in part a Labour List blogger.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance was hostile: The Conservatives plan to flood local politics with thousands of taxpayer funded radical activists … perhaps missing the point that the 5000 local organisers will also “have the skills needed to raise funds to pay for their own salaries”.

But the Alliance were right to be amazed that a Tory leader now should endorse the local organising tactics pioneered by Saul Alinsky. It surprised my friend Kevin Harris too, who blogged Let’s hear it for neighbourhood groups: Conservative party launch of the Big Society.

So there I sat, listening to a potential Conservative prime minister say that the role of the state is to agitate for community engagement (speech here). And I remembered the day in 1997 when I heard a representative of the brand-new exciting-new socially-dynamic Labour government say ‘we know things can’t all be done quickly, we’re planning for ten years’. I rushed back to my colleagues at Community Development Foundation with the message – c’mon, c’mon, we’ve got ten years to prove community development works.
Well, we didn’t. Now I reread the phrase in today’s document: ‘We will encourage mass engagement in neighbourhood groups and social action projects’ and it seems to me this is another chance; because the welfare state and a society of institutions are things of the past, and you can’t do without support for local involvement.

Further details of the plan below, and more mainstream coverage here.

I sat through three hours of the Tory seminar yesterday, followed by the launch the independent Big Society network (about which more in a later post) and was pretty impressed by both. Well, the substance of the seminar if not the style. Empowerment is substantially about attitude and trust, and talking at your audience for three hours with short breaks, few exchanges, and without even the relief of Internet access is not very empowering. Were phones blocked, or was it just the concrete in the Coin Street Community Centre? Not very smart comms either, since it meant no chance of live blogging or tweeting to spread the word. Maybe they were nervous, so we ended up with big lights, big cameras, not big conversation. Next time, trust the audience.

Despite the traditional event format, I felt like Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph that a set of well-developed ideas had been put together into a coherent narrative. Not new, but new for Tories. See my earlier post for background.

What’s going to be much more tricky is the second part – the detail. Organising at local level is messy and difficult. People disagree, and volunteers need a lot of support. It’s a point made strongly in the Labour List piece by Alan Painter and also by Will Horwitz at Links UK, who adds:

… many of the powers Cameron would like to see local groups exercising are notoriously complex, and without a lot more detail it’s hard to know how much would change. He’s not the first to have tried to engage local communities in local planning decisions, for example, and there’s no detail on how he’d do this differently from previous governments. Furthermore, we’d be the first to point out that local community groups complement rather than replace the role of elected officials and the state, both locally and nationally.

Making it all work will require development of these policy outlines into procedures, by diligent civil servants, and sympathetic local authorities. One wonders what’s going to be in it for them, when quite a few will be worried about the impact of spending cuts on their jobs. Still, that’s always been a problem, and I sense most community organisers would rather have the Prime Minister on their side, of whatever party.

Here’s the main new policies announced as part of the Big Society plan:

  • Neighbourhood army” of 5,000 full-time, professional community organisers who will be trained with the skills they need to identify local community leaders, bring communities together, help people start their own neighbourhood groups, and give communities the help they need to take control and tackle their problems. This plan is directly based on the successful community organising movement established by Saul Alinsky in the United States and has successfully trained generations of community organisers, including President Obama.
  • A Big Society Bank, funded from unclaimed bank assets, which will leverage private sector investment to provide hundreds of millions of pounds of new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other non-governmental bodies.
  • Neighbourhood grants for the UK’s poorest areas to encourage people to come together to form neighbourhood groups and support social enterprises and charities in these poorest areas.
  • Transforming the civil service into a ‘civic service’ by making regular community service a key element in civil servant staff appraisals.
  • Launching an annual national ‘Big Society Day’ to celebrate the work of neighbourhood groups and encourage more people to take part in social action projects.
  • Providing new funding to support the next generation of social entrepreneurs, and helping successful social enterprises to expand and succeed.

Full speech and document here


  • April 2, 2010 - 11:07 am | Permalink

    … interesting and zeitgeisty…

  • April 3, 2010 - 7:07 pm | Permalink

    One test of the ‘neighbourhood army’ will be whether a Cameron government is prepared to stick with them when they start publicising the effects of the same government’s spending cuts.

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