I see big society as a brand, which wraps together some general motherhood-and-apple-pie progressive ideas about the citizen and state with which few of us would disagree. I don’t imply that it’s empty or necessarily misleading or corrupt. I think it’s a smart piece of idea-management and I’m curious as to how Labour party thinkers are feeling, since they had most of the components – including smaller state, according to one persuasive view yesterday - but failed to put them together into a package.
The key effect of the branding process is to have got people talking about broad cultural change in a positive way. There’s a great deal to be said for that, although the debate has probably not been as extensive beyond Westminster as those within shouting distance might like to believe.
I offered some quick points by way of critique, beginning by referring to the point quoted by Will Davies that we live in a society ‘in which massive gains are privatised and massive losses are socialised’. The financial crisis illustrates why this is so stupid. Big society doesn't even address it.
Much of what is described in big society rhetoric implies consensus within localities by use of the C word. It’s as if the country is parcelled into neatly delimited neighbourhoods, populated by like-minded people who are ready to reach agreement on what needs to be done, and who have the time and energy to get on and do it. It’s not healthy that we have politicians who are so ready to elide the realities of life at local level that they see ‘communities’ as unified structures, there to be consulted and acted upon. It’s patronising to people to expect or require them all to think and act alike. (I’m indebted here to Jeremy Brent).
I like the idea that big society is not about trying to do more with less, it’s about doing more with more – the extra energy resulting from galvanising civic involvement. That’s powerful and it's what community development does.
So will this new civic energy be evenly distributed? No. Some localities will continue to experience a shortfall. Do we have the strategies for dealing with that unevenness? Not as far as I’m aware. Is it even recognised at policy level? Not as far as I’m aware.
Again, within localities, the distribution of civic power and the new influence over resources will be uneven. Because communities are not cohesive units constructed for the convenience of politicians, sense of community in a given place tends to be dominated by some groups to the exclusion of others – adults denying space and audience to young people being the classic example. That phenomenon is likely to be accentuated under big society.
I offered a few thoughts about the proposed army of 5,000 community organisers - the leading of the five thousand as I call it. I suggested a few days ago that the notion of community organising under big society is going to be pretty much value-free. That bothers me a little. The values that underpin community development aren't just chantable mantras: you have to live and breathe them or you will be found out, I promise you.
Big society presents new permissions in citizens’ relations with local government. It seems to give residents explicit permission to bash council officers for not doing what they want them to do; but it also gives officers permission to say, ‘well ok if that’s what you want, go do it yourself’.
My view (expressed previously) is that ‘rolling back the state’ polarises those for whom it will be alright and those for whom it won’t be. Those who experience exclusion start with no options. I think it is false to imply that by making the state smaller you will automatically reveal a big society.
Everyone will have examples of community sector initiatives under threat. I offered an example of a local resource centre I know which has a reputation for the work it does far beyond the town it serves. They receive a grant of £8k from the council, and like a lot of such grant recipients they get bullied in subtle or overt ways by their council. Because they’re smart with SROI, they can show that they generate £86k of services. I’d take that, wouldn’t you? They are now being faced with a 50% or 100% cut in their grant.
So what I want to ask is this: how are people expected to react as they see their own community sector initiatives, developed over years of unrecognised and unrewarded effort, with lessons absorbed, experience shared and efficiencies gained - initiatives which apparently are consistent with big society principles - being wiped out by public sector funding cuts?
I fear we are going to see a stark division between those localities where new civic energy is going to emerge, and those where people are exhausted and energy is depleted. No prizes for guessing the class divide that represents.