Why the Big Society failed...and what Labour should learn
Philip Blond and Steve Hilton had a ‘crisis meeting’ last month about the Big Society…
…Frontline workers “haven’t a clue” what the Big Society is meant to be about, and are “shocked to learn how little money is attached to it”.
…Phillip Pullman launches a withering attack on it in front of hundreds of people campaigning to stop library closures.
…The Chief Exec of the Royal Society for Arts writes that “if the Big Society doesn’t get more substantive and granular quickly, it will feel like the only credible thing to do is knock the whole idea.”
…Charities which provide vital and innovative services are cutting their services or even closing completely.
…A group of young volunteers get involved with a community group to produce a film mocking the Big Society.
…Tory MPs describe the Big Society as “intangible and incomprehensible...odd and unpersuasive”.
Its critics mock it, volunteers and charity workers despise it, its creators are briefing against each other, and its core supporters in the Tory Party and the think tanks are turning against it. The only remaining question about the Big Society is not whether or not it will succeed, but how long it will be before the government quietly drops the term. John Major’s Traffic Cones Hotline lasted three years and three months, and it would be a surprise if the Big Society staggered on much longer than that.
Problems with the Big Society are too numerous to mention, but to highlight just a few – its supporters can’t explain what it means, it has become associated primarily with closing libraries, it is very easy for opponents to mock, the people who have to deliver it don’t understand or support it, and the few detailed proposals are being appallingly badly implemented. Any one of those problems could be lethal for a government programme – let alone all of them together.
The only thing which the government could do now to save the Big Society is to throw some money at it – reverse the library closures and the cuts to charities, fund their community organiser training programme properly (rather than training people and then expecting them to be able to fundraise for their salaries), invest in the infrastructure, create a level playing field for government procurement and build the capacity needed to ensure, for example, that their neighbourhood plans don’t get dominated by a vocal minority.
But even given the political will, the fact that the Big Society could only be saved by the Big State chucking money at it highlights the flaw at the heart of the whole idea. Anyway, if the government wants to spend some money on new projects to win back public support, why would they risk these projects flopping by associating them with the Big Society?
It is worth remembering as the Big Society collapses into chaos and ridicule quite how popular it was amongst the political elite when first announced. A whole “Big Society industry” sprung up over the summer, soaking up thousands and thousands of hours of civil servant and policy researcher time in conference after conference, seminar after seminar. Labour thinkers from Demos’ Open Left project to Jon Cruddas argued that it was a brilliant strategic move which posed a deadly threat to Labour, and would define the future of political debate. Others called for Labour to embrace “the Good Society”, or “take back the Big Society”.
Instead of taking back this mess, I think Labour’s approach should learn from the Big Society in the following ways:
First, ensure the “Big Society” fiasco does maximum political damage to the Tories. Labour's team should invest just a little time in making sure that the Tories aren't able just to drop the term and walk away, and that “Big Society” becomes to David Cameron what “Cones Hotline” was to John Major – a well known policy disaster which also highlights a wider message about the government’s mistaken approach.
Second, impose the “Philip Blond test” on all new policy ideas for Labour’s policy review. The Philip Blond test is simple – if Philip Blond would support the policy proposal, bin it. This has the advantage of (a) weeding out daft ideas and (b) avoiding the risk that Philip Blond tells all his friends in the media that Labour is listening to him.
Third, make sure that they understand the policies that they adopt, and can explain them to others. This should be obvious, but was in many ways the biggest failing of the Big Society. The people on the ground who could have made the Big Society work were alienated by the insulting, top down way that millionaire, out of touch politician David Cameron announced that his Big New Idea was that they should do what they had been doing anyway, except with no money.
Fourth, listen to people outside of the political elite who can show how their ideas work in practice. The people who fixated on the potential of the Big Society and who thought it was a work of strategic genius missed the big story, which was that the Big Society was popular with political insiders, and a disaster with everyone outside of the Westminster bubble. It is easy to imagine Labour repeating the mistakes of the Big Society by, for example, adopting the new wheeze from someone like Neal Lawson as our Big Idea, spending a year trying to explain it to people who are largely hostile or indifferent, and then getting slagged off in the newspapers by Lawson for failing to implement his brilliant ideas correctly.
Instead, we should pay attention to the people whose ideas actually have been shown to work in practice – people who work and volunteer in community groups, councillors, public sector workers and so on.
Just to take one example from thousands, David Robinson has some brilliant ideas about how early action can prevent social problems from happening, rather than public services just picking up the pieces after the problems have been caused. He is worth listening to because the charity he founded has run projects which cut crime by 50% and which has the best record in Southern England in helping unemployed people get jobs.
At the moment, too much attention gets paid to people whose only credentials are that they have a think tank in central London and good media contacts. Instead, Labour needs to listen to the people who can show that their ideas work in the real world.
Lastly, recognise that even popular ideas about how to improve communities get tainted by association with politicians. Donating money at cash points was a popular idea – until it was suggested by government as part of the Big Society. As Julian Dobson notes, “you’ll find very few people ready to buy a message about society promoted and preached by a government that’s generally perceived to be undermining society.” It's not just the Tories, living wage campaigners worry about their campaigns being weakened if they come to be associated too closely with the Labour Party.
Rather than Cameron’s top down approach, Labour needs to develop a different way of doing its business, building from the grassroots and making sure that the people who are going to have to carry out our policies understand them, support them and were involved in designing them.