Can political parties deliver the big society?

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Last July, here at the RSA, I spoke at a conference to discuss Conservative Social Action. This is an initiative to encourage Tory MPs and parliamentary candidates to establish social action projects – charities or social enterprises – in their constituencies.

At the conference and in various written pieces I applauded the initiative. For years I tried without success to get Labour leaders and officials to see that the change model of political parties was bust. Young people in particular weren’t interested in the idea that change came only from electing people to make decisions on their behalf. Instead, I argued, local political parties needed to be change agents themselves, making things happen in their own communities which symbolised the kind of progress they wanted to make in the council or at Westminster. It was a poignant for me to see an idea I had failed to get established in my own party being taken up by the Tories.

So it was sobering to read this piece in the Times on Saturday.  It’s not for me to comment on the individuals named in the article, but the fact that Conservative Central Office could apparently only cite five projects out of the 150 claimed doesn’t sound good.

If it is true that the Conservatives’ hopes for a different type of political activism haven’t been fulfilled, what does this tell us? Perhaps the Conservatives have just been guilty of over-selling what can be achieved in a couple of years. With a General Election in the offing the social action projects may have been relegated in importance. The question then is whether the Tories will continue to push the idea after May 6th.

A more depressing conclusion would be that the ethos and image of political parties is simply not reconcilable with that of grassroots charitable endeavour. Maybe my colleagues in the Labour Party were right to ignore my call for a new model. Against this pessimism, I know several MPs of various parties who have played an important role in establishing and developing local third sector activities.

As long as our democracy relies on political parties it is in all our interests that they are reasonably strong organisations which attract talented and energetic people. This will only happen if they are organisations that make change happen, not simply ones that tell us to vote for other people to make decisions.

Perhaps after the election we can invite the Conservative social action team back and ask them what lessons they have learnt from the faltering attempt to make their party symbolise David Cameron’s big society.

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