Big Society won’t just happen says Blond

The tragedy is that the government has adopted a laissez-faire approach to the delivery of the big ­society. It has claimed that if the state stepped back, and social enterprise was incentivised (not least by the “Big Society Bank”), then the civic sector would grow itself – and there is no doubt that, in some parts, that will be true. But there is no civic infrastructure on which to base this ­innovation. It required a retail offering – every town or village or locality should have had its own big society platform where people could go for advice and input, and where the new powers in the Localism Bill could be explained and augmented with civic expertise, training in social entrepreneurship and the delivery of public service.

This a quote from a lengthy piece in the current issue of the New Statesman by Philip Blond, author of Red Tory and a leading figure in the movement towards a Big Society. In the week of the Conservative party conference, Blond outlines his concerns about the direction of the government’s flagship project. The biggest of them, as illustrated by the above quote, is that the government isn’t actually doing anything much to the Big Society happen and therefore it is mostly not happening.

Blond is certainly right in saying that the government has not followed the suggestions outlined by his Respublica think tank in their pamphlet The Venture Society, published in partnership with Unltd last year. The pamphlet proposed the creation of local community ‘lablets’ to act as incubators for social entrepreneurs’ ideas and, in doing so, get the Big Society up and running in local communities. This proposal, if taken up, would have led to the creation of a sizable part of the civic infrastructure that Blond believes is now lacking. He returns to the idea with the ‘retail offering’ mentioned above.

It obviously isn’t true that there is literally no civic infrastructure in place to support social innovation. The New Labour government put a lot of money into expanding the work of existing local and national infrastructure organisations, and – in the case of social enterprise specifically – into creating some new ones.

It’s not that Blond has failed to notice that many support services for people hoping to start or develop social ventures are, at least in theory, available in most local areas. It’s that he feels these existing services aren’t fit for purpose. My guess is that two of the biggest reasons for this are that (a) while, for example, local Councils for Voluntary Services, can give advice and support they usually don’t give out money to support new social ventures and (b) many of the existing infrastructure organisations don’t entirely support the Big Society agenda (I’m not necessarily suggesting that they should do).

While he might like to see the idea move beyond party politics, for Phillip Blond Big Society is a political project and it’s a political project that can only gain momentum through an investment of cash. While others within the Conservative Party may support the idea – with varying levels of enthusiasm – on the basis that it amounts to an endorsement of the good work that continues to take place when state provision and/or state funding is withdrawn, Blond sees Big Society as an active agenda. That agenda may well deliver signinifcant savings in public spending in the long-term but the short term aim is  to change the way that people interact with the state and each other.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge for Blond’s active Big Society vision – as opposed to the alternative vision that primarily involves creating a massive gap and hoping new and existing community groups will fill it – is that it needs thousands, if not millions of people to actively buy into it. Blond is clearly right that the only way that this can possibly happen to a meaningful extent on a national scale is if structures and/or significant new funding for existing infrastructure organisations is put in place to generate engagment.

So, for example, anyone who might be inspired to take part in community action as a result of the new powers in the Localism Bill, would need to have have some of finding out about them that didn’t entail significant existing involvement in community activities (or working for a thinktank).

It seem logical that Community Organisers might fulfil part of that role and the fact that Blond’s article fails to mention the programme at all seems strange but clearly funding the work of 500 people for a year is some way short of the investment that an active approach to the Big Society would require. Overall, it seems that, in terms of the Big Society agenda as conceived by Philip Blond, the question of whether it will work is likely to go unanswered unless the government can be persuaded to make a serious, funded attempt at testing the hypothesis.



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9 responses to “Big Society won’t just happen says Blond

  1. Well yes David. One of the key elements the success of the “Tomsk experiment” which P-CED sourced in Russia was the one-stop shop for business creation and development. In this case for micro enterprise rather than social enterprise development. That was the basis on which we submitted a bid for village SOS two years ago, for a community hub to develop social enterprise.

    With regard to developing a local resource for social enterprise
    development, sustainable energy and the relevance of the Localism BIll, this is precisely what I’ve been doing.

    So when are they coming to help?


  2. That Blond didn’t see this coming is quite surprising. From being a vision thing, to being nothing – receiving no mention other than at Tory conference fringe events. But as I’ve always maintained, the adoption of the Red Tory rhetoric was only ever about winning office and legitimising a programme of social change for the benefit of those who fund the Tory party – Britain’s ruling class, based in the City.

    Spreading ownership and enterprise (especially social enterprise) throughout the UK means resources – Blond doesn’t want the state to do it, but then he doesn’t realise that there’s no return on investment to attract financial capital. The offer to Cameron to take a Red Tory turn is like inviting the Pope round to your house for a seance – even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t know where to begin.


  3. Beanbags admin

    While Phillip Blond clearly doesn’t support the left-wing view that people have a fundamental right to more equal levels of wealth, I think he genuinely does think that present levels of inequality in the UK are bad thing and
    does want the state to play an active role in spreading resources – including through state support for some forms of common ownership, as well new social initiatives in a general sense.

    I don’t know what Mr Cameron thinks but so far, possibly by default rather than design, he’s backed the ‘create a big gap’ version of Big Society over the ‘build the Big Society’ version.


  4. @James, interesting that you mention inviting the Pope around, from what I’ve read, he seems better informed on how to make it happen. I extracted this from Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

    ‘This is not merely a matter of a “third sector”, but of a broad new composite reality embracing the private and public spheres, one which does not exclude profit, but instead considers it a means for achieving human and social ends. Whether such companies distribute dividends or not, whether their juridical structure corresponds to one or other of the established forms, becomes secondary in relation to their willingness to view profit as a means of achieving the goal of a more humane market and society’

    “Striving to meet the deepest moral needs of the person also has important and beneficial repercussions at the level of economics. The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centred. .”

    I have a word or two on ethics to offer business and government in Social Enterprise Magazine today:


  5. Personally I don’t see much point in even debating the big society. Really it is not much more than empty rhetoric to soften the blow of welfare state retrenchment, calculated to stop mondeo man, or worcester woman from fretting too much whilst keeping the right happy with the emphasis on the responsibilities of individuals.

    Ironically too the big society was Blair’s baby (albeit for communitarian rather than neo-liberal reasons) and was as a result well funded and supported by new-labour; The Compact, Futurebuilders, Change Up, Supporting People etc… etc… To get it to the next level would require huge resources and we’re not even talking here about concerns over things like mission drift and the voluntary sector becoming too buracratic, or too commercial which still remain unresolved.

    Anyway.. I’m here debating it, but really we just need to stop it. The big society deserves no more of our time!


  6. Beanbags admin

    Well, it’s definitely true that the Blair government supported a massive increase in state-funding for services delivered by the voluntary sector and social enterprise. Now we’re talking about the role that civil society – including the voluntary sector and social enterprise – plays in getting stuff done with less money.

    Big Society itself is a label. That label may or may not still be around in two or three years’ time but the problem – how we meet expanding needs with shrinking resources – is not going to go away.

    Of course, ‘we should tax more and spend more on public services provided directly by the state’, might be part of the argument but I don’t think it’s a key part of many of the key arguments we’ll be having in the near future. So, for me, what happens in the space currently known as Big Society is going to be a big issue for a while yet.


  7. Neil80

    Yes, that’s a point that under the superficial label there is a real long-term issue – and it’s a debate thats been going since the late 1970s at least i.e how should we meet growing levels of need with less resources. I do feel though that the big society is shifting the debate away from the areas that matter and which became apparent during the Blair years – those of mission drift, contract-culture and growing bureaucracy in the sector distancing VCO’s from their beneficiaries. It seems that these issues have been pushed aside and we’re talking about how best to boost the role of the voluntary sector whilst ignoring that it has been done and it has been in part contraversial.


  8. Beanbags admin

    Well, I agree that more delivery by the voluntary sector and social enterprises isn’t a positive end in itself. A big issue is definitely whether a greater diversity of providers leads to better, more responsive provision – it could do. In some cases, though, it will also be about getting the results that beneficiaries want for less money. That’s unavoidable. The point is to make sure that based on doing things differently rather than people doing the same jobs for worse pay and conditions and/or many services just suddenly not being there.


  9. Pingback: Big questions won’t go away | Beanbags and Bullsh!t

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