Big Society – scope for a hostile takeover?


Although everything I saw was slightly obscured by a film of snot (so far, for me, 2011 has involved only three days free of colds) yesterday was a fascinating day.  It gave me a new perspective on the politics of the Big Society.

In the morning I attended the launch of Lambeth’s report, ‘The Co-operative Council’ subtitled ‘ Sharing power: A new settlement between citizens and the state’. The report emerged from the work of a Commission of which I was a member (although I was only able to attend a minority of its meetings).

For a local authority really to shift power outwards and downwards requires three things to happen together. There must be leaders who genuinely want to hand power away, even if it means making difficult decisions. There needs to be sufficient capacity and goodwill in the community at large to take the offer seriously and rise to the challenge. And the machine between the leaders and the community – which means, inter alia, other councillors, council officers, trade unions, financial and legal processes (both those generated internally and those imposed from outside) – must be able to act as an effective transmission mechanism between the two.

It is too early to say whether the revolution to which Lambeth leader Cllr Steve Reed has committed will take place. There is little doubting the sincerity of Steve and his cabinet and the enthusiasm of a vibrant South London community. It is the stuff between which will be the highest barrier. As Victor Adebowale said at the launch event, ‘if you mean this, there will be many jobs lost in the council bureaucracy’. The Lambeth plan is staged and has many safeguards built in but by its final phase it envisages independent mutual ownership of everything from libraries and adventure playgrounds to regeneration (through ‘community improvement districts’) and the council newspaper.

So this is surely the Big Society in practice. Although both Tessa Jowell and Steve Reed were at pains to say their vision was very different from the Government’s version, which both of them see as nothing more than a cover for cuts.

So it was interesting that my next meeting was of the Friends of the Big Society, Lord Wei’s loose association of activists, think tankers and Government advisors. The meeting was enthusiastic and – as we all introduced ourselves and our organisations - an impressive arrays of initiatives were laid out. But as the meeting proceeded the only thing that got clearer was the lack of clarity.

Nat Wei can boast a wide variety of Government initiatives that can be corralled under the Big Society banner – the Localism Bill for example. There is also confidence that the next few months will see big progress on headline projects like the Big Society Bank and ‘your square mile’. But – as I said earlier this week - this is happening despite the absence of a core account of what the Big Society is.  The various fragments don’t add up to a whole, certainly not one that can much longer withstand a critique from both Labour and elements on the right who have always been suspicious of the whole idea.

But the definitional issue is not the biggest problem. If one way of measuring the Big Society is the amount of third sector activity, especially that which relates broadly to increasing civic capacity, there is no question at all that the next two years will see society get smaller. In the face of the scale and rapidity of the reduction in funding, Councils are finding that scrapping third sector grants is a much cheaper and easier way of make immediate savings that making staff redundant. It is statutory services by professionals that will be preserved while preventative, community based provision withers away.

This is an inevitable consequence of the Coalition’s strategy. Between my two meetings yesterday I crossed Waterloo Bridge in the company of an academic who I have always found a reliable and incisive commentator on Government policy. His view is that the senior figures in the Coalition see the next two years of deeply painful change as inevitable. They hope, of course, that the final two years of their term will see things pick up but they are philosophical about the dangers. It is better to have one term that changes everything forever than three that do not (which is how they read New Labour’s record and Blair’s own view of it).

Coalition supporters who are also advocates of Big Society thinking face a massive – and probably unbridgeable – credibility gap. For the next two years many of those things they say they are most value will be undermined by the Government which they support.  They can, of course, argue that the Big Society offers the best way of respond to the cuts in publicly funded social infrastructure, but for the charities and their clients this is a bit like a small member of a gang offering you some ointment after a big member of the gang has just kicked you.

Ironically, Labour is in a stronger position to use Big Society rhetoric; in attacking cuts, in describing the way Labour councils are trying to defend communities from those cuts and even to start describing the future that Labour might want to offer at the next election.

Some people on the centre left have urged Ed Miliband not to allow the Conservatives to have sole ownership of the ideas of the Big Society, but perhaps he could be even bolder and try to take make this very ground his own?

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