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Creating the Big Society

15/04/2010
Image from the
Conservative manifesto

Despite Labour’s odd choice of cover, the Conservative manifesto looked the most unusual this week. It was presented as an invitation to ‘join the government’ – to set up our own schools, to elect local police chiefs, to run the local post office, and to form co-operatives to deliver local public services. An attempt by the Opposition to offer something different without extra spending, perhaps, but it’s not just them. Although each party wants to paint the other as returning to their big or small state roots, there is now a consensus in British politics around the agenda of localism.

Partly, the roots of this lie in Thatcherite individualism and Blair’s ‘choice’ agenda. But New Labour, influenced in the 1990s by Think Tank Demos, also introduced the idea that creating connected communities was the answer to many of the problems of our increasingly individualistic society. Social capital was Blair’s ‘magic ingredient’. Increased funding for community organisations, Local Strategic Partnerships and teaching schoolchildren to be ‘active citizens’ were all meant to empower communities. Let us not forget that inviting co-operatives and social enterprises to run health services, and individuals and businesses to resurrect failing schools as Academies were all Labour policies.

Now thinkers such as Philip Blonde are arguing that such a vision is new and unique to the Tories. At this election, Cameron’s is certainly the most dramatic and ideological version of this idea. There are many problems with localism, from its potentially damaging effects on democracy and equal and universal services to a bias towards certain groups becoming more involved. But the most obvious issue at the moment is its workability: how do you create empowered local communities without greater state intervention or expenditure? Crucially, research suggests that civil society has to be built up over time in order for it to have a positive impact on politics. It is not created simply through reductions in the size of the state, something that Cameron, despite some of the rhetoric, does seem to have realised. He says that ‘collaborative democracy’ and an army of community organisers can march us into a new era of localism. For this to happen, he needs all of us to start volunteering, but what could possibly provoke this kind of change?

Throughout their manifesto and broader campaign, the Conservatives keep repeating one word, responsibility. They have been involved in research into the moral development of character and say they want a ‘cultural change’. Though they don’t go into detail, they even say they’ll use ‘the latest insights from behavioural economics’, whatever that means, to foster participation. If this is what the manifesto has shown to be the intellectual thread running through their policies, we might question the logic. In a time when our respect for politicians has been damaged, are we really likely to listen to such orders from the top?

Indeed, is imposing one set of values on the population ever a good idea? ASBOs and the New Deal have already attempted to enforce certain behaviour, but most people are unlikely to voluntarily respond to Cameron’s invitation unless there is a clear benefit for them. It’s not only about a lack of time (as the Guardian’s Jackie Ashley has argued), which can be bit of an excuse, but about the situation people find themselves in – during the recession, volunteering has increased, but without resources and support these people will stop when they can find jobs.

The Big Society has to exist before you remove the state, and it takes time, money, and recognition to build. If people don’t feel part of communities or engaged with their local area, they will not be encouraged to do so by being given a ‘right to bid’ and run services or a ‘right to buy’ the local pub. What is needed is reform alongside funding. In their manifesto the Tories acknowledge that this means an ‘active role for the state’. We need more of this, and fewer claims that society is broken, to help it grow.

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