Big Society: the alternative?
In the week that Nick and Dave are blowing out the candle on the coalition's first anniversary cake and following devolved and local elections (and the AV referendum in case you'd forgotten), this feels like a good moment to take stock. The Big Society is the Government's big idea - some might say an alternative defining vision to Tony Blair's Third Way.
What we've seen in the last year is a raised profile for civil society and a greater political and media interest in the work that our sector does. There are new opportunities too - in terms of finance, public services and the potential for a greater role in shaping local communities. All of this, however, is tempered by the difficult environment that we spend so much of our time talking about and trying to improve for NCVO members. The financial crisis and subsequent recession hit levels of giving hard at a time when demand inevitably increased. Public spending cuts are undoubtedly extremely challenging and that coincides with the VAT increase and the ending of transitional Gift Aid relief. Voluntary organisations are not immune from wider pressures caused by a stagnant economy either, and with growth remaining fragile at best, there are wider impacts on other sources of finance, including income from investments.
So, against that difficult backdrop, building the Big Society was never going to be easy. Assuming that the alternative can't just be business as usual and no cuts, what else should government be doing?
We were fortunate enough to hear from Tessa Jowell MP, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and MP for Dulwich and West Norwood at our All Party Parliamentary Group meeting last night on Labour's view of the Big Society and its alternative. Tessa Jowell's analysis started by outlining the importance of the principles of the Good Society, the Big Society or just civil society (whichever you prefer) to those both on the political left and right. Her view is that it speaks to those on the left in terms of the importance of community, solidarity and mutualism and that much of the rhetoric chimes with the co-operative traditions and roots of the Labour movement. To the right, it speaks to the appeal of redefining the role of the state, to the rights of individuals and the principle of self-help. A key focus of the Labour critique appears not to be that the principles of the Big Society are wrong, but that government is not taking the implementation of policy through the stages of big idea to policy to operation seriously enough. For example, in the case of localism, the principle appears to be shared but the proposed means and mechanisms of delivering the decentralisation of power differ widely.
Labour's emerging policy on civil society appears to focus on the following key elements:
1. 'Community where possible, government where necessary' - where a greater role for community and civic action is sought and encouraged but where central and local government might retain a more clearly defined role
2. That the building of a healthy economy, where deficit reduction is balanced with growth, job creation and investment is essential to the building of a healthy civil society
3. The principle of reciprocity as an alternative to 'more for less'
4. That public assets remain in public ownership
5. Changes to public services to make them more responsive and accessible but that there need to be changes to balance risk and innovation between the state and civil society more effectively
6. Finally, that new organisations are required to act as intermediaires between the state and civil society
So, the months ahead offer the sector an opportunity not only to continue to influence the Government but the opposition and the terms of political debate more generally. I'd encourage all of our members to take that opportunity.
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James Allen, Head of Public Services and Partnerships and Head of Compact Voice blogs on public services reform and financing, challenges for the VCS and the Compact.