A quick history of the Big Society
Every time I read a well meaning Labour activist argue that "Labour needs to move beyond the belief that the state can do everything and develop a response to the Big Society", it makes me sad.
Here is a quick history of events which contributed to the development of the Big Society:
In the 1970s and 1980s, radical/loony lefties set up a wide range of communuity groups to empower people and deliver a wide range of innovative services. The Tories and their Right Wing allies denounced them in the most vicious terms.
Between 1997 and 2010, Labour created space and put in place policies to enable literally thousands of voluntary groups to flourish, with huge new opportunities to deliver services and to improve local neighbourhoods. The Tories ignored this, because they were more interested in banging on about immigrants and tax cuts.
In 2009, a small group of public relations professionals at the top of the Tory Party - none of whom had any experience of voluntary action - announced something called the 'Big Society', a vague, top down initiative which attempted to claim credit for the insight that voluntary groups had a role to play in delivering services and improving communities.
In 2011, thousands of voluntary and community groups will be wiped out by the savage cuts which the Tory government is inflicting on us.
An even shorter history of the Tories and the Big Society:
First they denounced it.
Then they ignored it.
Then they claimed credit for it.
Then they cut it.
That's all very well, the anguished Labour activists might reply, but how to respond?
First of all, don't repeat Tory spin. There isn't anything new about the idea of getting local voluntary groups to deliver services, organise communities and all the rest of it, and it is interesting that the Tories were so out of touch with civil society that they thought that they had come up with a new idea. The person who did more than anyone else over the past thirty years to enable voluntary groups to flourish was Gordon Brown. One of the first acts of the coalition was to axe a scheme which let voluntary groups hire young, unemployed people doing exactly the kinds of jobs which the Big Society aims to create.
Secondly, oppose savage and unnecessary cuts to the voluntary sector. David Cameron said last week that local charities should not face spending cuts, while slashing budgets to local authorities by 30%. If the government really believes in the Big Society, it needs to give voluntary groups time to explore how they could sustain and develop their work with alternative sources of funding - from individual donations to social impact bonds, payment by results and all the rest.
Withdrawing government funding and then expecting groups immediately to be able to find other sources of funding (including some such as social impact bonds which have never actually been proven to work in practice) is totally unrealistic. A much better option would be to continue government funding for voluntary groups at the same levels for a further two years, giving them time to plan and develop alternatives.
Thirdly, support the government when they do the right thing. The review of regulations will probably come up with some sensible ideas, such as reducing overly onerous requirements on Criminal Records Bureau checks for staff and volunteers. Just because Labour did a lot to help voluntary action, there were some things that the last government did wrong.
Lastly, the main problem with the Big Society, despite its rhetoric, is that it is a top down initiative, developed by a few wealthy and powerful people who have little understanding of social action. In its place, we should build up a response from the grassroots. We should start with the knowledge and expertise of the people who work and volunteer in local communities, using this to inform our policies and actions in everything from how to tackle poverty and increase the number of good jobs, to how to provide better quality services, to improving health and living sustainably.