At the last election one of the Conservative Party’s core messages was the need to build ‘The Big Society’. On paper, the creation of institutions such as the Big Society Bank and the National Citizens Service suggest that the idea has been successfully implemented. However, the political reality is far more complicated. Despite a series of relaunches the concept has taken a back seat in the wake of current economic difficulties, criticism from Conservative backbenchers and a lack of cut through with the general public.
The concept of The Big Society was a core part of attempts to modernise the Conservative Party, demonstrating to voters that they were more than simply the “nasty party”. However, despite the Big Society’s prominence in the run up to the 2010 election, events conspired against it. The financial crisis and subsequent recession firmly placed the Coalition’s focus on deficit reduction rather than on social action. This lead to the Big Society being portrayed by Labour and the media as a Trojan Horse, an attempt to hide unsavoury cuts to public services and the voluntary sector behind localism rhetoric. Mentions of the Big Society have quietly faded from use, much to the joy of its critics who had treated the idea with suspicion from the outset.
The successes of the Coalition’s social action policies are therefore on a smaller scale than its leaders might have once hoped. Rather than a solution to the “broken society”, the National Citizens Service involves less people than expected. The Big Society Bank, despite having a potential budget of £600 million, is unlikely to replace the funding lost by many voluntary sector organisations due to austerity measures.
It is therefore ironic that the group most influenced by the Coalition’s social action policies is Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. The ideas proposed by Blue Labour, have been adopted by the Labour leadership even as the Blue Labour brand itself quickly became defunct. Labour has adopted the concept of “community organisers” as a way of reaching out to the public, such as the Movement for Change organisation established by David Miliband during the party’s leadership election. Jon Cruddas, head of the party’s Policy Review, is also a known proponent of mutualism as an economic concept. It is likely that similar “Big Society” themes to feature during the 2015 election, even as the name itself falls into disuse.
Progress against the Coalition Agreement
Pledge: We will support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and enable these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services.
Status: In progress - The Government have increased the number of mutuals providing public sector services from 9 in 2010 to over 60 by the start of 2013. However, many charities and other voluntary organisations have suggested that they are facing financial difficulties following Government budget cuts.
Pledge: We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. This will empower millions of public sector workers to become their own boss and help them to deliver better services.
Status: In progress - A number of departments have piloted schemes for mutualised public services. It would be a stretch to suggest that millions of public sector workers had been empowered by the small scale of the pilots, however.
Pledge: We will train a new generation of community organisers and support the creation of neighbourhood groups across the UK, especially in the most deprived areas.
Status: In progress - Government figures suggest that 195 “Senior Community Organisers” had been trained by October 2012. This is far short of David Cameron’s target of a 5,000-strong “Neighbourhood army” of community organisers announced in his March 2010 speech unveiling the Big Society.
Pledge: We will take a range of measures to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy.
Status: Done – The Government has introduced several measures, including tax breaks and donations via cash machines, to encourage people to be charitable.
Pledge: We will introduce National Citizen Service. The initial flagship project will provide a programme for 16 year olds to give them a chance to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, mix with people from different backgrounds, and start getting involved in their communities.
Status: Done - The scheme was piloted in 2011, and the number of young people involved increased in 2012.
Pledge: We will use funds from dormant bank accounts to establish a ‘Big Society Bank’, which will provide new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other non-governmental bodies.
Status: Done - The Big Society Bank was established in April 2012, with £200 million of funding provided by high street banks and £400 million from dormant bank accounts.
Pledge: We will take a range of measures to encourage volunteering and involvement in social action, including launching a national day to celebrate and encourage social action, and make regular community service an element of Civil Service staff appraisals.
Status: Done - Several measures have been adopted by the Government, including the “Dementia Friends” initiative and the Social Action Fund. Volunteering is encouraged in the guidance for senior civil service staff appraisals.