Conference dispatch from the Conservative Party Conference: Big society takes centre stage
In a recent article in the Observer, Tory thinker Phillip Blond observed how civil society now occupies the centre ground of British politics. Never has this been more apparent than at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week, where delegates crowded into small hot rooms to debate and dissect the finer points of the ‘Big Society’ agenda and the role of civil society.
Key players in this agenda (Lord Wei, Phillip Blond, Steve Moore and Paul Twivvy) dashed from platform to platform. In his closing speech the Prime Minister made no fewer than 10 references to the Big Society and called for individuals to step forward and get involved. Following on from Ed Miliband’s ‘Good Society’ speech, Cameron’s closing speech shows how the Civil Society agenda now occupies the centre ground in UK politics – again and again Cameron returned to his Big Society narrative, arguing that at the last election ‘statism lost and society won’.
Despite some confusion about the precise nature of the Big Society, there was much interest from delegates and sector representatives about its potential transformative power. However there were four concerns that came up again and again:
- Will this only deliver for communities who already have high levels of social capital?
- Will life be squeezed out of the voluntary and community sector by the public spending cuts before there is a chance to build the Big Society?
- What is the appropriate role for central government in the Big Society?
- How comfortable are we with the ‘postcode lottery’ implications of the Big Society agenda?
A small group of NCVO members who attended the conference (through NCVO’s party conference bursary scheme) were given the opportunity to debate the Big Society with Rohan Silva, adviser to the Prime Minister, and David Brindle, Public Services Editor at the Guardian. Silva gave a coherent and articulate overview of the levers the Government intended to put in place in order to deliver the Big Society and addressed head on a number of concerns raised by sector representatives:
- Silva assured the group that he shared their concerns about poorer communities being left behind in the Big Society and that Number 10 were looking seriously at how poorer areas could be supported.
- He recognised the impact of the public spending cuts on the sector and suggested there may be some support announced in the comprehensive spending review for organisations who were well placed to deliver public services but may struggle financially in the short term.
- Silva said that Central Government did not have all of the answers and would not be overly prescriptive. He reiterated the need to focus on outcomes rather than process. Central Government should focus on oversight.
- He echoed some of Greg Clark’s comments around accepting local difference.
Verdict: Two conference speeches, very different leaders, one overriding theme – how we support civil society to deliver for local communities. Civil Society issues firmly at the heart of British politics and a very big challenge for the sector.
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Chloe Stables, Parliamentary and media manager, reflects on the latest political developments affecting the voluntary and community sector.