Making the best of the Big Society debate

After some “whatever happened to the Big Society” comments last week, I think we’ll hear more this week from David Cameron because the Conservatives need some serious “time for a change” narrative to reclaim ground from Lib Dem advances, following Nick Clegg’s Leaders’ Debate performance. It has started with a Big Society versus Big Government speech today, where Cameron says he is going to “redouble the positive” in the election campaign.

“The old top-down, big-government approach has failed in Britain”, he said, adding that even if you still believe in it there isn’t any government money left to try it with: “Gordon spent it all, it’s all gone”.”So we need something different, and that is where our big idea comes in. The idea of building the Big Society, the idea of saying: if you want change, then we have all got to pull together, work together, come together, recognise we’re all in this together, and that’s how you get change.”

The difficulty in following through is at least three-fold:

1. You need to have some understanding of the political complexities of advocating unbridled community action: there’s a useful perspective here from Bob Colenutt. There are credible strands in Tory history – including support for community development trusts I experienced in the 1970s and 1980s – but I don’t understand how they will mix with the far more radical ideas of Saul Alinsky, said to underpin plans to train 5000 local organisers. So the policy-level narrative is flaky.

2. Secondly, making the Big Society work at local level is very challenging, as Rob Greenland reminds us in an excellent piece:

Put people in a room and they’ll argue. They’ll each bring their agendas. They’ll block progress on this issue because they felt they weren’t listened to on the last issue. They’ll enjoy being listened to – but won’t make too much of an effort to listen to others. Is that a bleak view of humanity? Perhaps it is. But have you ever been to an Allotment Committee meeting? Or a Tenants and Residents Association AGM? Wonderful, real, human, community action. But as labyrinthine as, and potentially less accountable than your worst local Council meeting.


I think in broad terms the Tories are right on a number of issues. I do think the relationship between the State and the people has to change. I do think that more of us have to start taking responsibility for improving society, rather than retreating into our cosy homes and consuming our way out of having to worry too much about the slow disintegration of the community around us. I just think they’re being simplistic – and that their approach would lead to further social division as those who have power, income and contacts do well – setting up schools and improving services for people like us, whilst people who do need a helping hand are told that you just have to do it yourselves.

Are the Tories aiming for development of services by “people like us” in better off neighbourhoods, and Alinsky-style campaigning elsewhere? That would be a volatile mix.

3. Local action is traditionally Lib Dem territory. Or is that the idea, make friends with Nick?

But let’s be positive. It is amazing to have community development, social enterprise, social action at the heart of an election campaign. What’s needed to make the best of the opportunity? It depends where you are coming from, of course.

A. From the Tory pespective, they need more endorsement from practitioners and activists. But that’s difficult to achieve at present, because most outside the volunteer-philanthropy traditions aren’t natural Tories, so they’ll make just-about-polite noises until there is a Conservative government. Not looking so certain at present, so caution prevails.

B. From the Big Society Network perspective, they need to show they are relevant, as I argued previously – adding detail, connecting with others in the field. But if they are seen merely to be providing support for item A. they’ll lose credibility and any pretence of independence.

C. From the citizen/voter perspective, we need some non-partisan space in which to aggregate and discuss the debate now emerging – not least because most organisations are keeping their heads down. We need more than a Twitter stream.

D. And for those trying to develop innovative ideas on the field, we could do with a place to pull together good examples of what’s happening, and to evolve together some ways to blend the best of the old and the new … for example community development plus co-design events, plus online.

Back in 1999 there was a flurry of activity around “neighbourhood” supported by early policies of the first New Labour government, and the first round of hyperlocal online communities. I registered back then, but never did anything with it. I’m wondering if I can muster the energy to set up a lightweight site to do something on C. and D. – if others are interested. If the Tories are in government, we’ll have something to offer. If not, we’ll have floated a few boats on the rising tide.

Worth a go?


  • April 19, 2010 - 6:21 pm | Permalink

    As I said on Twitter I think this is a good, fair overview of issues surrounding the Tories Big Society plans.

    What kind of vision did you have for making use of

    My own project,, is focused on facilitating more productive, useful online discussions, but it doesn’t have anything specifically focused on strengthening local communities.

  • April 19, 2010 - 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Nicholas … three areas particularly interest me: helping policy people get a better idea of the networks already operating in this field; making better connections between online enthusiasts and more traditional activists; and promoting collaborative workshops blended with online activities to generate innovate projects … and in all of this develop better alliances and partnerships across sectors. I think there’s value in these bridging activities – just to work out whether it would be a sustainable activity or something short term

  • April 20, 2010 - 9:35 am | Permalink

    I think there is huge suspicion around the tories Big Society amongst voters. That suspicion being that they want us all to do more so they can do less, therefore absolving themselves of responsibility for social ills. I remember like many other Margaret Thatchers “no society”.

    I do believe that we all have to take more responsibility for what is happening in our own communities, the national community and even the world community but I believe another problem is that people have become mighty cynical of politics itself as a method of bringing about change.

    The conservatives in my view would have to do much more work on the ground, in our less well off communities and for a longer period of time before their idea of a “big society” would be credible.

    I’m open to the idea, and I’m not putting them in prison, but I do think a longer sentence of community service is in order!!

  • April 20, 2010 - 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Martin I think you are right: if people like some of the Big Society ideas, but don’t totally trust the Tories, it is even more important that they can both show Conservative track record on the ground AND respect and support for organisations and networks that do have a record. Without that sound connection with practice the policies lack substance.
    I guess the Big Society Network was meant to be the bridge, but it is a difficult positioning exercise to provide credibility for the Big Society ideas (if not direct support) while remaining independent.
    It would be a pity if we lost the boost to community development, organising, social action in the political muddle.

  • April 22, 2010 - 11:57 pm | Permalink

    David, did you pick up on my further comment about BSN as opposed to just the Tory policy I had already blogged about.

    I’m afraid that notwithstanding the excellent credentials of the visionaries trying to establish the Network, I’m very sceptical.

    I cannot see how a 15 million member organisation can truly have the spirit of the Co-operative Principles for example. Even the big retail co-ops, the vast majority of whose members are democratically inactive in the organisations, can struggle to ensure real member democracy and the ability personally to hold their elected management to account.

    Coupled with the Tory policy that has been so heavily influenced by “Nudge” and the “Red Tory” ideas it is an inescapable for me conclusion that this is a way of getting a “nudger” in every home, not necessarily appreciating that they are absorbing the ideals of a vast organisation that can not be anything but hugely political at that scale.

    For mutualism to really mean anything in my opinion it has also got to be about grabbing powers that the state should never have had in the first place, not delivering state initiated policies by volunteers – which does indeed sound rather more like getting us to do it so they don’t have to. This means, for example, that for functions so “grabbed” by their communities, those communities should not be sending tax money to Westminster to have it mashed about by a bureaucracy and some of it sent back plus or minus a little bit. Instead that money should be raised locally, and only if there is a demonstrable shortfall in their ability to fund a sort of service level agreement should there be some kind of balancing pot to move some money from richer areas to poorer areas.

    Overall, you can have a “Big State” without necessarily having a “Big government” or a “Big bureaucracy”, and a “Big State” with lots of enthusiastic volunteers (and, dare I suggest, “busy bodies”) “nudging” everyone else is a very insidious form of statism to me.

    As to the Network though – apart from the democracy issue, I am concerned about the appearance at least that they want to be an overarching body for apparently all community action, presuably from “Aroma Gardens” to “Community Zoos” and every specialism in between.

    One of your quotes mentions TRAs for example – there is already a very good network of TRAs, with resources, a national training centre that is well used. Credit Unions have their own specialised network. And so on and so forth. Is the BSN going to try and match the specialist skills and experience in all those “market sectors”?

    I think there could be a role for BSN – but it would likely for me more be like a privatised and self financing version of the OTS/BusinessLink/ICOF/CUK cabal, that must be clearly distinct from government, and should be at most a secondary co-op rather than a primary co-op, which member community projects would join, rather than 15 million individuals.

    But overall, as a mutualist, I want to take power away from the state, not act as a delivery agent for the state.

  • April 23, 2010 - 12:06 am | Permalink

    (I hope these are moderated and that my last comment didn’t simply disappear?)

    …but I wanted to say one other thing. You mention about “Local action is traditionally Lib Dem territory. Or is that the idea, make friends with Nick?”

    Coincidentally I’ve been meaning to blog, as a member, about how the Lib Dems *could* make this a mainstay of a coalition with the Tories. I maintain it would be more positive for the Lib Dems to go with Tories than Labour. There are more ways of asserting our own identity with the Tories, whereas in coalition with Labour much of the party would disappear under a sort of a red-orange mush.

    And one of those areas I reckon would be to act as “policeman” for the mutualisation agenda, to ensure it is done properly as devolution, as communities grabbing power rather than as voliuntary delivery agents of centralised state policies.

  • April 23, 2010 - 12:30 am | Permalink

    Oh dear – my first, and long, response must have got gobbled somewhere! Oh well – it’s too late to retype it all now – might do so tomorrow sometime. But in the meantime you might want to see, if you hadn’t already, my post the Network rather than the policy which you already saw.

  • April 23, 2010 - 8:13 am | Permalink

    Thanks Jock appreciate you persistence! Your long post got trapped in the spam filter (quite unfairly) and is now re-instated.

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