James Allen – Building Labour’s big answer to Cameron’s ‘Big Society’

The Big Society is what David Cameron sees as his big idea and what he would like to be his political legacy. But what’s the answer for Labour – mockery, cynicism, emulation or just ignoring it and hoping it will go away? I’m not sure that any of those is really an option and although many argue it is a political gimmick that will soon disappear, Cameron has been talking about his ‘Big Society’ since his election as party leader in 2005 and there is no sign that he’ll let it go without a fight. There are shortcomings in the theory, and even greater shortcomings in the practice, but his commitment to the idea is sincere and I suspect that it’s here to stay. Neither is it just talk. The Big Society has three core constituent parts: the decentralisation of power, support for volunteering and community action and the reform of public services. There are concrete policy changes underlying all of them. Under Big Society proposals, and particularly in the Localism Bill, there is set to be a significant shift of power from central to local government. Communities will be given new powers to shape their local area and public services. This is therefore about a smaller state, particularly at the centre, but it’s about more than that.

The Big Society poses a dilemma for Labour and the temptation so far has been to mock it as a shallow political slogan, whilst simultaneously describing it as a sinister mask for deep and ideologically driven cuts to public services and a shrinking of the state. There is some truth in both of these claims, but behind the Big Society rhetoric, real policy change is happening too – and not all of it negative. There are plenty of areas where Labour should oppose the Government – including by contrasting the reality of spending cuts is on the ground with the rhetoric of community engagement at the centre. But it would be a real mistake to oppose the principles of decentralisation and localism, public service reform, civic participation and greater powers for communities. This would play into the hands of political opponents who would claim that Labour’s legacy is one of reckless overspending, relentless obsession with targets and belief that the answer to all society’s problems lies in making the state bigger. Aside from this, the Big Society – though we will need to think of a new name – should also be natural political territory for Labour.

It used to be the Labour Party, not the Conservative Party, which talked about ‘power to the people’ and meant it. Labour must take ownership of the debate about how to reinvigorate communities through handing over power to citizens, how to reform the role of the state in a progressive way and how to take forward the reform of public services. That means that the understandable temptation to dismiss the whole project out of hand must be resisted. We shouldn’t be looking to trash the Big Society, but be the Party that genuinely wants to build it, pointing out the contradictions, lack of interest in delivery and the huge impact that the Government’s way of implementing spending cuts will have whilst developing an alternative vision.       

We know that the Big Society is divisive for the Tories too. Many candidates complained bitterly that it was bombing on the doorsteps during last year’s election campaign and there were many prominent voices calling for it to be ditched. The fact that Cameron resisted those claims reflects three things – first, that he believes in it and second that the Conservative Party has finally learned to move on from its toxic political strategy of the late 90s (though not enough to have won an outright majority). Thirdly, and to Labour’s credit, the political centre ground has decisively shifted and a Conservative Party committed to changing its image calculated that a platform based in part on social engagement and partnership was more likely to be a winning formula that the negative campaigns of 1997, 2001 and 2005. 

Whilst the Big Society hasn’t really captured the public imagination, the still relatively high levels of support for spending reductions and a widespread perception that the state has become too big do mean that we need a full, frank and open debate about what we think the state should do.  The Labour Party must argue that there will always be a role for the state and that the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised people and communities are often going to be best met, at least in part, through state provision and assistance. Sometimes, there is really no alternative to the state stepping in and there is a real danger that diminishing the state’s power to act will do great damage to the most vulnerable in society. We shouldn’t be too defensive about Labour’s commitment to state action either. The progress towards a more equal society under Labour and the reduction in the UK’s shameful rate of child poverty since 1997 occurred because the state stepped in to check growing socio-economic inequality. We are proud of having invested record sums in vital public services and turned back the clock on two decades of chronic underinvestment.  

None of this, however, was down to the ‘big state’ but down to the state making the right interventions at the right times. We want the state to be responsive, to step in when it needs to and to act when it is right. That does not mean that state solutions, more spending and more regulation and target setting from the centre solves everything. If the Tories are ideologically driven to seeking a state as small as possible whatever the cost, then our response should be more sophisticated – not in seeking to make the state bigger and more expensive, but in making it more effective. The relationship between state and society should be complementary and mutually reinforcing – and is more complex than the ‘Big Society’ idea that making the state smaller is a pre-requisite to social action.  

Where Labour’s criticism of the Big Society urgently needs to become louder and more targeted is in highlighting the difference between government rhetoric on wanting a vibrant and growing civil society and the impact that cuts are already having on communities. It is right to accept the reality of the UK’s fiscal position, and the need for reduced spending, whilst at the same time, making the case against cuts that are faster and deeper than necessary and that inflict the most damage on those least able to cope with them. That includes cuts which, for all the Government’s talk of localism, mean that local authorities are having to front-load reductions and make the majority of cuts in the first two years of the Spending Review period, inflicting more damage on services and communities than is necessary, even if the proposition that the deficit has to be wiped out in four years is accepted. 

The Labour alternative to the Big Society should focus on:

• Handing over power to citizens and communities, not just politicians. To hand over real power takes confidence but also requires real commitment. Labour should highlight and build on our strong track record of devolution of power to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London in government, but accept that devolving power to another political institution is only part of the solution. The real goal is to pass power down in a meaningful way to people and communities. To make handing over power to communities genuine and not just an exercise in spreading the blame for difficult decisions means that those communities must be equipped with the skills, confidence and knowledge to make those decisions.

• Engaging in an open debate about what we want the state to do and how it will be financed. How ‘big’ or ‘small’ the state is misses the point – and that’s a debate that we probably can’t win anyway. Conservative posters with happy and sad faces reflecting ‘big society’ and ‘big government’ were vacuous – but this doesn’t mean that the issue can be dismissed.  

• Addressing the balance between central and local government. Central government must retain a central importance in our society – not only as the collector and distributor of revenues and in the provision of a safety net, but in terms of setting standards and retaining influence over what happens locally. However, as the Labour Party reflects on its future policy direction and on the mistakes of its time in office, the status and decision-making power of local government needs to be considered. In my view, the current Government is sweeping away central monitoring, targets and arbitration over local decision making far too quickly, but the principle that local authorities should have more flexibility and be subject to less monitoring from the centre cannot be ignored. We also need to think about what are the implications of localism for the ‘postcode lottery’ and stop pretending that making decisions from the centre will solve this problem – it hasn’t.  The centre should therefore be there to guarantee and enforce minimum standards, but also to trust local government to make its own decisions.

• Taking the development of policy on the reform of public services as seriously as criticising the Government’s spending cuts. We talked a lot about ‘rights and responsibilities’ in government but didn’t get beyond the early stages of engaging users to be actively involved in shaping and producing public services themselves. Co-producing services is going to be essential in seeking to enhance service provision in the context of two huge challenges – demographic change and, for the foreseeable future at least, serious resource constraints, likely to be exacerbated by (at best) slow and fragile growth.  This means that if we are serious about public services having a future, then we need to reduce demand on them. The emphasis (and spending) in public services needs to move to prevention rather than cure. To its credit, the Government is investing in a Public Health Service in order to actively invest in preventing ill-health and is investigating new ways to simultaneously finance acute and current need with prevention. There are many other areas – including reducing re-offending where relatively small upfront investments yield considerable benefits to the economy and to the Exchequer, which would require a much more flexible approach from the Treasury in controlling departmental spending. 

• The second element of public service reform is about delivery. There will always be a role for the state in delivering public services but this doesn’t mean that the state is the only, or always the best provider. The starting point for deciding who should deliver a service should be the quality, responsiveness and accessibility of that service for users and cost effectiveness and efficiency for government. As a note of caution, this is not a pitch for privatisation – but for imaginative approaches including mutual and co-operative provision, social enterprise and the voluntary sector to be considered as part of mainstream thinking and not peripheral in public service delivery. Also, of course, a motivated, skilled, properly paid and protected workforce is at the heart of good quality services – the interests of users and workers are rarely mutually exclusive.

• Finally, the Labour Party should be the champion of voluntary and community action. Labour needs to make its voice heard much more effectively in highlighting the chasm between ‘Big Society’ rhetoric and what’s happening on the ground. This is where the biggest contradiction in the ‘Big Society’ lies. For all the talk of a bigger role for civil society, cuts to funding (often with little notice) are not only damaging voluntary groups, they are in many cases driving them to bankruptcy. Decisions have been taken by many local authorities (which central government claims to be powerless to stop) to slash voluntary sector budgets. In many cases, they’ve been left with little choice – large cuts to funding and an insistence that cuts have to be front-loaded (arguably not so localist) from the centre.

Building an alternative policy around community engagement, devolving real power to citizens, reforming the role of the state and developing public services which place users at their heart will be far more challenging than making fun of the ‘Big Society’. However, this is the right thing to do and it is about time that Labour took back control of this agenda.

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Article image by Conservative Party

James Allen

About James Allen

James Allen is Policy Manager at a national charity. He leads on areas including the future funding of the voluntary sector, economic policy and public services reform. He worked previously as Communications and Policy Manager at Connect – the union for professionals in communications and as a public affairs consultant in the private sector. He is a member of Camberwell and Peckham Labour Party, the Co-Operative Party, the Fabian Society and Unite. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy and is a School Governor in the London Borough of Southwark.