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The Big Society – New Labour’s achievement?

Image from the
Conservative manifesto

Some good news today on the Big Society for voluntary organisations in need of capital. Although many of David Cameron’s proposals don’t look like they’ll have a big effect, the Big Society bank sounds like a very good thing – using money in dormant bank accounts to capitalise the sector. Seen as part of this government’s wider agenda, it is being argued that the whole Big Society idea is simply a cover for the government’s desire to cut spending. The cuts should be opposed – they will put the continued growth of the voluntary sector at risk. But Cameron seemed quite keen today for us to see community development, not cutting back the state, as his passion.

If we take him on his word, this is an interesting development. Is it not possible, then, that the Big Society will be seen as the success of New Labour’s attempts to promote community and the voluntary sector? Ideologically, Labour’s reinvention in the 1990s involved rejecting socialism and adopting a brand of Communitarianism, including the idea of social capital. My PhD research looks at how social capital (the idea that working together and building relationships leads to individual benefits and further cooperation), was a major inspiration behind New Labour policies on active citizenship and social exclusion.

Now, it seems, the coalition has adopted this Communitarianism and rebranded it. Ed Miliband and Eric Pickles, talking on the World at One today, both agreed that these policies started under Labour. Miliband couldn’t disagree with the rhetoric – David Cameron used ideas of community empowerment, decentralisation and social investment, all very popular with New Labour. Many of the techniques were similar too – the previous government wanted to find better ways of ensuring investment for social enterprises, open up the provision of public services to other organisations, and encourage local activism.

The new government has made some changes so that it can appear to be doing something new. They are scrapping the popular Futurebuilders fund, which supported voluntary organisations with loans and grants, and using the money to pay for the training of community organisers. However, barring initial problems with cash flow, the new Big society bank will provide about the same amount of money. The use of dormant assets in this way wasn’t even their idea, it was originally planned by Gordon Brown, who has prepared the way by getting the necessary legislation through parliament.

This is still the Conservatives, of course, and the voluntary sector is right to be concerned that the new funding might not offset the government’s desire to reduce the state. I’d still contend (along with the main theorist behind social capital) that civil society doesn’t just spring up when the state is reduced. Almost all the successful examples I’ve seen show that resources and government support are needed for the sector to grow.

We’ll have to see how much the state is rolled back, but those in favour of strengthening communities and promoting voluntarism have cause to be optimistic. Labour and the Conservatives will each continue to exaggerate the other’s over-reliance on the state or on the market, but they are often now talking the same language. Rather than dying along with New Labour, the Third Way has become the most popular route.


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  1. Dave West permalink

    Do you think that under the previous government those who are very cautious about civil society provision, and see it as code for cuts, were quite successful in blocking it in many areas?

    They might now be less successful, having less influence within government, but also have more incentive – the coalition and the cuts – to be outspoken and try to block it.

  2. I don’t think those who opposed civil society provision under the last government felt at the time that they were having a big impact, and politicians didn’t seem to feel they had to justify why that wasn’t what they were doing. The point was consistently being made within Labour and from outside, though.

    The interesting thing right now is that it is the Labour leadership candidates, especially Ed Miliband, who have to made that point against the government – they don’t yet seem strong enough or free enough (given their complicity in the last government’s actions) to do this very well. Unlikely anyone will be able to successfully stop much of the new government’s cuts, but I’m sure many will be able to slow them down and make them difficult?

  3. Dave West permalink

    Certainly I think those opposing that change in the NHS were aware they were blocking the significant opening up of community health services. My guess at the moment is that now they probably won’t concentrate so much effort on stopping that because a) to some extent a lost battle and b) there are other bigger battles – other cuts, pensions, pay etc.

    In that Ed Miliband (without knowing anything particularly about his backers) is likely to have similar union interest and backing, I think if I was a supporter of civil society provision I would also want him to convince me that he really means it.

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