Big Society - Fair Society


  • Communities
  • Social productivity

Generally leadership campaigns are good for political parties, but if you want to know why the longer Labour’s goes on, the more damage it is doing you need only read this reaction from Ed Miliband to David Cameron’s Big Society speech today. Ahead of actually hearing the speech he accused the Coalition of:

"Cynically attempting to dignify its cuts agenda by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society".

I’m sure this will go down well with the dwindling band of Labour activists and trade union paymasters. It may come across less well with a public which polls suggest is at least open minded about the Big Society, and in Liverpool which is hosting the speech. The Labour run City Council has successfully bid to be a ‘vanguard community’ taking forward the idea of the Big Society. And Liverpool isn’t the only Labour Council using the ideas of the Big Society.

I have just agreed to become a member of the Lambeth Co-operative Council Commission. From its well-deserved dire reputation in the eighties and nineties, Lambeth is now one of Labour’s most dynamic and successful councils. Here is a quote from its impressive leader Steve Reed in the introduction to the prospectus for the Co-operative Council:

The first challenge relates to the type of relationship we need to create between citizen and public services. Increasingly communities and the state are recognizing that the public sector cannot do it all and that citizens need to be part of the solution to the challenges our increasingly complex and diverse communities face’

If the Coalition is guilty of ‘cynicism’, it looks like Councillor Reed has been well and truly duped! I might not use the ‘Spartist’ language of Mr Miliband but I have my own concerns about the Big Society idea. I won’t go into all this again, except to say that I do think Mr Cameron missed a messaging trick today. To underline his commitment to ‘progressive ends’ and to help counter scepticism, the Prime Minister could have had a stronger redistributive element.

In simple terms the message could be that advantaged communities have a great deal of resource in terms of money, skills, networks (to take one example middle class pensioners are healthier and live well longer than their poor counterparts).  So the task involved in mobilizing those communities is primarily to create the opportunities for that capacity to be expressed.

But in disadvantaged communities the Big Society task is more difficult and more resource intensive. Here the need is to not just to tap into the ‘hidden wealth’ of these communities (and hidden wealth there is as the RSA Connected Communities project is finding) but also to provide the infrastructure of resources and skills needed to make the Big Society aspiration realistic and rewarding to those communities.

In essence the Big Society message should be ‘middle class people will be expected to do more, working class communities will be given the support to do more’. There will still be plenty of criticism, but such a message (using more nuanced language than this, of course) would make it even more difficult for pragmatic progressives like yours truly to heed the gloomy siren call of the likes of Mr Miliband.

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