The Big Society and Community Politics: My Contribution to #SLFconf

[This is the text accompanying my presentation to the Social Liberal Forum Conference: “Liberalism, Equality and the State”, City University, 18/06/11. Not all of it was delivered on the day, because of the way the session panned out and because there’s too much of it. My thanks to my co-contributors Mark Pack, Simon Hebditch and Lee Chalmers – and to everyone who attended – for a really interesting session.]

“ … a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (MacBeth, Act V, Scene V)

David Cameron clings tenaciously to the Big Society as the organising concept behind his approach to state and society. He does so in the face of almost universal indifference and incomprehension from political opponents, the public, and many on his own side of the House. One is tempted to invoke the above quotation from Shakespeare and leave it at that.

That would, however, be unfair. It would also be a mistake.

Because the Big Society could signal something significant. Although not, perhaps, what its architects intend.

My aim here is to reflect a little on the idea of the Big Society, the consequences of the context in which the idea comes forward, and what it might have in common with the more venerable Liberal idea of Community Politics. In considering these issues it is essential to distinguish clearly between intention and outcome. The pursuit of the Big Society has the potential to set in train processes that may lead to outcomes quite unlike those intended or sought.

At the heart of this debate is the issue of power. While policy debates over the Big Society make much of the claim that power is to be redistributed away from the Centre a critical stance towards such claims is essential. Power is a central concept in the social sciences. It is also one of the most complex and contested. Many many years of debate have demonstrated the subtlety of the issues. Much of the richness of these debates can be lost when they are translated into practical politics.


Some of the apparent policy aspirations behind the Big Society are undoubtedly attractive: a change in the culture of volunteering and philanthropy; greater community empowerment and self-help; community rights to challenge public providers over the quality and value for money of their services; more mutualism and social enterprise.

But many of these changes – if they are to be sustained – are not going to occur over night. And they are not necessarily going to be effected using the mechanisms proposed. In relation to giving, for example, the influence of the Government’s Nudge Unit is evident. But I’m not convinced that it is absence of appropriate cues or overly challenging mechanisms for donation that stand in the way of increasing charitable giving.

And even if there are elements of the Big Society that are positive, the overall picture that emerges might be considered to be less appealing. Or, indeed, not self-evidently coherent. For example, the Big Society seeks to sustain the idea of the citizen as consumer and the idea of citizen as active in shaping the future of their communities collaboratively. There are well-rehearsed debates in the literature about the extent to which these two roles are compatible or fundamentally in tension. While this conference is occurring Paul Burstow is down in Bristol telling councillors that personalisation – based on the further marketisation of public services – is a quintessentially liberal idea. But how the encouragement of a more atomistic, consumerist approach to public services sits alongside fostering a greater sense of collective interest and collaborative effort is by no means straightforward.


The Big Society has a family resemblance to the idea of Community Politics. Both are fundamentally pluralist. At the centre of both is a critique of over-centralised and insensitive state provision. Both place emphasis upon the deconcentration of power and its broader distribution.

But the Big Society is a rather less rigorously developed argument than the Community Politics of Greaves and Lishman. Indeed, the Big Society has been described as a rather “baggy” concept.

One key weakness of the Big Society argument, certainly as advanced in Jesse Norman’s book, is that it starts from a critique of the top-down control freakery of the Blair-Brown era and concludes – with a logical leap of considerable distance – that the state per se is therefore a bad thing and a spent force.

There is a problem of scale here. Even if one accepts the critique of centralised Big Government there is little discussion of whether the answer is a more empowered and autonomous local government. Rather the Big Society argument elides the distinction between central and local government and, on the back of a critique of Blairist centralisation, sees the solution in passing power out of the public sector entirely. Of course this may simply reflect the Conservatives’ rather more deeply embedded antipathy to local government. But there is a major gap in the argument here that needs to be explored.


We need to distinguish between the ideal – or, dare I say, the PR – of the Big Society and the reality. We need to place the policy in context. And the context is austerity.

We also need to keep an eye on the detail. The PR associated with the Big Society, like policy in a number of other areas at the moment, may appear potentially positive – perhaps even relatively benign. But it is the detail you have to watch. As someone commented at a seminar I was at the other day: with the way this Government makes policy it isn’t the headlines you have to be concerned about, it is the footnote on page 75 that seeks to introduce something highly significant and potentially deeply problematic. For example, tucked away in Schedule 9 of the Localism bill is the statement that those working within a neighbourhood have standing in the formulation of neighbourhood plans. The PR is about “communities” – for which many people will read “residents” – being able to shape their destiny. Yet, it is possible to find briefings to the corporate sector which identify the Localism bill, when enacted, as offering an unprecedented opportunity for large employers to have a new lever with which to shape the environments in which they operate.

Whatever the intentions behind the policy – and let’s assume for a moment they are good – in the context of austerity there is a significant risk that the outcome of pursuing the Big Society agenda will be to entrench power and inequality. In fact, here it is difficult to discern intentions. The original public service reform discussions, back in February, for example, placed private providers alongside social enterprises and voluntary sector organisations. Then, more recently, as I blogged at the time, there were signs that the Government was backing away from allowing private providers, fearing a political backlash. (NB. Since the SLF conference there have been news reports that not only were private providers back on the table but increasing private provision represented the main objective of the reforms)

Greaves and Lishman were clear that power is not something that is lightly given away. Rather it is something that has to be seized. The argument was made rather earlier by Gramsci.

Community Politics is explicit in recognising that shaping plans and directions for communities involves bringing together and reconciling competing perspectives and claims. Plans are arrived at through deliberation. The Big Society has little to say on the matter. In this sense it is rather weak in its conception of power.

An issue for me is who will be in a position to seize power when the opportunity arises. And will it enhance or undermine the prospects for sustaining a healthy liberal democracy.

There is a key contrast here between the Big Society and Community Politics. The Big Society agenda is top-down. It is all about the Centre handing power down. It can be seen as having an authoritarian streak in the sense of obliging others to take responsibility. Community Politics on the other hand is bottom-up. There is a recognition that communities need to seize power for themselves, rather than waiting for the powerful to deign to hand power down. Community Politics is about working both outside and inside the formal processes of representative democracy in order to shape the outcomes for the community. It is federalist in the sense that it sees communities as coming together in order to achieve broader objectives of mutual benefit.

Consider words and actions. For all the Big Society emphasis upon the decentralisation of power there is very little sign of the implications of this argument being understood among the blue contingent of the Coalition. We have, for example, the sundry centralist offences of Mr Pickles – on matters large and small – and, most recently, Michael Gove making the announcement, apparently of out of the blue, about turning 200 poor performing primary schools into academies.


We can identify a number of more specifically problematic issues with the Big Society agenda.

First, implementation is inadequate. Even if one were to agree that the Big Society were desirable, and the mechanisms the Government is using to foster the Big Society appropriate, the scale of the measures put in place to bring it about are too modest – probably by several orders of magnitude.

Second, we need to recognise that the capacity to respond to the agenda is unevenly distributed. And without significant investment in enhancing capacity it will remain so. The ESRC Third Sector Research Centre has done important work mapping charitable giving, volunteering and the density of civil society organisations, for example. This work indicates that all are unevenly distributed, with disadvantaged areas being relatively poorly provided in all of them. Also, a higher proportion of third sector activity in disadvantaged areas relies on statutory funding. So these areas are more vulnerable in the current climate of austerity.

David Cameron’s model appears to be one in which voluntary sector activity is not underpinned by statutory funding but by volunteering and private philanthropy. Yet the route map to get from where we are now to this brave new world – one that would appear to be a lot like the US – is by no means clear. An assumption that civil society is sufficiently resilient to spontaneously fill gaps created by state withdrawal may be valid for some parts of the country. But without doubt it is not valid for all parts of the country. The net result will be increased inequality of provision.

As John Stuart Mill observed in his Principles of Political Economy: “Charity almost always does too much or too little; it lavishes its bounty in one place, and leaves people to starve in another”

Third, the Big Society misreads the reasons why people volunteer. The motivations for volunteering are varied and can be tied up with people’s own self-perception, their desire to contribute to the commonwealth, it can simply be about sociability and social interaction. It is rarely about stepping in to provide services which “should be” provided by the state. Many people volunteer as a break from “work” – turning voluntary activity into work isn’t going to encourage many more people to engage.

Fourth, there is a host of issues upon which the Big Society is rather vague. These include things like

  • the role of professionalism in service provision – Are committed amateurs being expected to step in to take on complex roles? Is this always wise?
  • economies in provision – Is the assumption that there are no economies of scale or scope? Or are we saying that enhanced provider diversity – small scale social enterprise, voluntary sector activity, etc – is more important than minimising budgets by exploiting economies of scale and scope? In the context of austerity that seems unlikely.
  • the accountability mechanisms for erstwhile public services;
  • the regulatory frameworks within which community-run erstwhile public services might have to operate (eg equalities duties).

In the absence of civil society capacity to respond to this agenda one can envisage at least two different routes to a rather different destination. First, if community organisations are not able to respond effectively to the Big Society agenda, when the Government seeks to move beyond public provision to provider diversity it is the private sector that has the capacity to respond and therefore provider diversity equals privatisation. Privatisation may not be the Government’s objective, but if there is an overriding emphasis upon (apparent) value for money at local level then the private sector is frequently going to come out the winner. Second, community organisations respond initially but are unable to cope with the more onerous responsibilities placed upon them and, as a consequence, the services find themselves in the private sector through a less direct route.

Either way, this does not seem to resonate with the charitable reading of the Big Society agenda, which places more emphasis upon organisations such as mutuals, social enterprises and voluntary organisations as the alternative to public sector providers.

Either way, the result is that significant components of service provision could be placed beyond effective democratic scrutiny and accountability.

Even if the Big Society agenda were judged positive in the abstract, in the context of austerity and an urgent need to save money, it will lead to the concentration of power rather than its deconcentration. That is not good for the health of liberal democracy.


My sense is that the Big Society – beyond or behind the warm and fuzzy rhetoric – is likely to concentrate power and not deconcentrate it. That may not be the intention – but intention is largely irrelevant to the outcome if a broadly permissive framework is put in place. Powerful private actors will be able to exploit their economic power to take a significant slice of the market. And if we think about recent events around social care and the problems with Southern Cross we can see that reliance on large scale private providers of public services carries significant economic risks.

If this is the future then it also carries political risks. Strengthening the grip of private interests over essential public services gives them greater influence over the political process. That is bad for liberal democracy. That isn’t to say private provision is definitionally bad. But a permissive framework will find it hard to stipulate that only small scale local private providers are welcome. It will be open to challenge by the large scale interests with economic power. It is all about power.

We should be looking again at the role of the local state. The state is the most appropriate forum in which to seek to reconcile the conflicts and tensions between competing interests. It is the best vehicle we have for protecting shared interests. The state has a key function in ensuring that resources are fairly distributed. The theme of this conference is “Liberalism, Equality and the State” – the Big Society would appear to be strong on the first of these, but there is a fundamental link between “equality” and “the state” that we neglect at our peril.

But the local state needs to be democratically controlled, with more effective and diverse mechanisms holding it to account. Drawing on Community Politics – valuing broad-based participation for the benefit of every individual and respecting individual rights – a new narrative of accountability can be forged. The recent news reports of events in Barnet have been interesting here. Bloggers working in concert have been able to bring information to light and challenge poor performance on the part of the local authority. New mechanisms of accountability.

This is a future that keeps the state – a reformed and responsive state – centre stage. This is a very different agenda from the Big Society. It is an agenda that seeks explicitly to recognise and reconcile liberty and equality – not leaving the disadvantaged to fall further behind.

As Anne Coote of the New Economics Foundation wrote last year:

If the state is pruned so drastically that it is neither big nor strong enough to do this, we shall end up with a more troubled and diminished society, not a bigger one.

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