It was great to take part this morning in a major policy conference hosted by the organisation Reform on the topic of the Big Society.
As I’ve written elsewhere, this has proved to be challenging territory for the Labour Party. On the one hand we have been keen to demonstrate how much of the Big society agenda did in fact build on Labour’s record in government.
On the other hand, we’ve has been distrustful of putting a label on the vast amount of voluntary and community work that is already happening in our communities.
Defining the Big Society
It is undoubtedly the case that the Government is seeking to redraw the boundary between the state and the individual, and also the arena in which some of the arguments relating to the funding, commissioning and models of delivery of our public services play out.
This is a serious reimagining of the role of Government. For many on the right, the Big Society provides an overarching narrative that functions as a necessary corrective to the Big State. According to its advocates (and let us not forget that it is primarily an ideological project driven by the PM), the Big Society brings with it less public funding yet a desire for more enterprise and volunteering and possibly more diversity and pluralism.
The reason I say possibly more pluralism is that I don’t think any of us yet know how the Big Society agenda will play out. We do not know how many social enterprises, coops, mutuals, employees owned companies, community interest companies and the like will be set up or what will happen if they fail. Will this simply usher in the private sector?
The key question throughout all of this is: what do we believe the role of the state to be? Is it as funder, commissioner, provider, quality controller or a mixture of all of these? We as a society have not yet had this discussion.
So we need to ask whether there is any role for the State as enabler in the Government’s agenda. Labour thinks our statutory agencies can work in partnership with other providers. In Government, we believed partnership with the voluntary sector to be central to service innovation and delivery.
But even before the Election we had already started to move away from the uniform delivery model and put a greater emphasis on social enterprises, mutuals, etc. – particularly in the post banking crisis period. It is certainly the case that had we learned more from our founding principles we could have moved towards a more responsive mode for our public services earlier on.
In the 1970s my Ph.D looked at relationship between community groups and state. The book In and Against the State hinted at the problems of public services being necessary but how they could become non-responsive to local needs and overly bureaucratic:
‘The ways in which we interact with the state are contradictory – they leave many people confused. We seem to need things from the state, such as child care, houses, medical treatment. But what we are given is often shoddy or penny-pinching, and besides, it comes to us in a way that seems to limit our freedom, reduce the control we have over our lives.’
The point being made here is that we didn’t adequately consider the downside of state delivery, but of course thinking of the state as contradictory does not equate to seeing it as totally repressive or oppressive. Philip Blond of ResPublica said at a recent Westminster meeting that the “State is malign”. I think this is perhaps as inaccurate as saying it is always good. What we know is that communities, and particularly disadvantaged ones, need support. Government at central and local level is key to putting frameworks of support for community activity in place and it can and often does this is partnership with others.
Indeed much of what Labour did, in addition to tolerating some very unresponsive services, was to simultaneously support groups of users that were challenging top-down methods of shaping and delivering services.
This leads us to be concerned about how the Big Society is being conceptualised. Much of the Big Society narrative has tended to be framed through the example of a prosperous civic-minded rural village – running libraries, local clubs and the like. This does not seem to have been conceptualised to deal with inner city/outer housing estates with multiple and complex problems which are often associated with entrenched unemployment, addiction and alienation.
The main thrust is this. Communities require different levels of resourcing and input. If social enterprises are really to offer employment opportunities to the most disadvantaged and if all communities are to be empowered to shape and deliver local services, then a framework of support and a timetable to deliver it need to be put in place. This is simply not there at present. We also need to ask communities if this is what they want.