“It caused unnecessary resentment among those in the Labour Party and the voluntary sector who quite justifiably felt that they had been successfully fostering a big society for decades. And people mistook it for a policy agenda, building conferences and seminars around it only to find there wasn’t much to chew on.”
That’s Third Sector editor, Stephen Cook, isolating some of the key factors as he uses latest editorial to part-suggest, part-announce the beginning of the end of the Big Society. He may be partly right. If the aim of using the phrase Big Society was, to some extent, to detoxify the Tory brand by illustrating that the party had moved beyond Mrs Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as’, it’s failed. In fact, by drawing (particularly) volunteer-led community activity under the Big Society umbrella, the incoming government may even have succeeded in putting some people off getting involved due to the negative political associations.
Big Society adviser Lord Nat Wei has come and gone, leaving behind some phenomenally creaky metaphors and the more instructive message that it’s very hard for working age people to work full time on a voluntary basis. Maybe it’s not surprising that council leaders are sceptical but even Red Tory, Phillip Blond, currently believes that the flagship idea is heading for the rocks unless the government does more to actually make it happen.
The problem with the main objections to the Big Society concept, which Stephen Cook sums up well in his editorial, is that they’re at least partly wrong and completely practically irrelevant. In the case of the voluntary sector, the ‘we’re doing the Big Society already’ argument is trite and more than a bit smug. That’s not to say that there aren’t any organisations in voluntary sector who are (and have been for a long time) fulfilling the one sentence Big Society objective of ‘helping people to come together to improve their own lives’ but the assumption that this is a quintessential characteristic of being a voluntary sector organisation is a big mistake.
There are plenty of large charities that have all the stultifying bureaucracy of local council but without the democratic accountability. There are plenty of small community organisations that claim to represent the interests of particular group of people but in fact represent the interests of a couple of opinionated individuals and a handful of their closest friends and family members.
That’s not to say that these organisations don’t do some good but the Big Society agenda is as much a challenge to them as it is to the public sector. Unfortunately, it’s also a challenge to the large numbers of third sector organisations that deliver services that clearly do help people come together to improve their own lives but do so too expensively to be sustainable in the current climate. This reality makes the ‘not much to chew on’ point particularly important and particularly incorrect. If anything, the problem with the Big Society agenda so far is that there’s too much to it.
Partly for demographic reasons, partly for (hopefully relatively short term) economic reasons, we face the massive problem of an increase in need combined with a decrease in resources. This comes at the end of a period in which the New Labour government oversaw a major expansion both in directly provided public services and public services delivered by the voluntary sector but paid for buy the state. Now there’s a lot less money for both and that would’ve been the case whoever had won the 2010 general election.
This calls for some serious thinking about what people who use state-funded and partially state-funded services want and need, and the role of both the state and third sector organisations either in delivering services or helping groups of people to do things for themselves. That thinking doesn’t necessarily have to take place under the banner of Big Society but ditching the Big Society won’t make the big questions go away.