Big Society 2.0? What sets our Paradigm apart

February 26, 2020  |  By Luca Tiratelli, Policy Researcher

David Cameron and Big Society

In July 2010, during his honeymoon period as Prime Minister, David Cameron unveiled what he called his “great passion” – the Big Society agenda. Built around principles of localism, volunteerism, transparency and devolution, the Big Society was supposed to provide the intellectual basis for Cameronism. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way – the momentum behind these ideas quickly fizzled out and Cameron never mentioned the Big Society publicly after 2013. In policy circles, however, the agenda continues to cast a shadow over those working on notionally similar ideas around community and devolution. Indeed, at NLGN, comparisons have been drawn between our calls for community power and the Big Society. We find a number of flaws in these comparisons.

Whilst perhaps the most interesting bit of policy thinking to emerge from government in the last decade, the Big Society was flawed in many ways. Perhaps its biggest issue came not from its conception, but from its timing. As a result of being enacted in combination with austerity measures, it positioned ‘community’ as a safety net for to justify a retreating state, rather than as a challenge to precisely that style of governance. Communities, weakened by cuts to essential services, were essentially asked to be their own lifeguards, saving themselves from the ravages of austerity. Regardless of how it was intended, the way it was pursued made Ed Miliband’s claim that the Big Society simply represented the Conservative Party “cynically attempting to dignify its cuts agenda” completely understandable.

However, even if we look beyond its timings, there were also significant issues with the ideas underpinning the agenda. For one thing, the Big Society failed to seriously engage with the issues that surround volunteerism. These include the power imbalances associated with this kind of activity – of the resource and time-rich middle class lending a hand to the ‘deserving poor’ – and the ways in which a reliance on volunteering tends to inevitably mean more unpaid work for women. Ignoring these structural factors meant that the Big Society was always likely to be regressive – and a more equitable model of participation by people who have a stake in outcomes, was never sufficiently engaged with.

The issues that come from an emphasis on volunteerism are particularly evident in things like the National Citizenship Service (NCS). This programme of voluntary work for young people, didn’t really engage with any idea of the local, and was instead – as the name suggests – a national project. Rather than seeking to devolve power down, it framed voluntary action as a way for young ‘citizens’ to repay some imagined debt to the nation. In this sense, NCS has the idea of responsibility the wrong way around – as it focuses on people’s responsibility to the state, rather than the state’s responsibility to people. As such NCS is a clear demonstration of how making a fetish of volunteerism can actually work against calls for devolution of power.

Another flagship Big Society project, free schools, was also conceptually confused. For one thing, it attempted to redefine community in education from geographic communities (catchment areas), to communities of concerned parents. Due to the ways in which class and education are bound up with each other, this empowerment of communities of interest constantly runs the risk of being exclusionary.

However, what seems most problematic about the idea of free schools is that – despite being couched in the language of community – the policy also has a stated intention of creating more competition in education and marketising school choice. Such a vision of parents as atomised consumers, searching for the ‘best’ school, rather than buying into their local one, seems antithetical to any sort of ideal of community public services.

NLGN’s calls for more community power do not seek to replicate any element of the above. Our vision of a Community Paradigm is not about shrinking the state – it is about creating a new kind of state. At its worst, the Big Society seemed to be a patch to cover the contradictions of the ‘market paradigm’, trying to allow it to limp on. Our agenda is about looking for ways to move on from the dominance of the market. The Big Society was associated with massive cuts to the numbers of front-line public servants, and a fairly antagonistic relationship between them and government – we are looking to free them up and empower them to be more impactful.

The Community Paradigm does not seek to make a virtue out of people doing more in their communities as an end in and of itself. It seeks to challenge paternalism in public service delivery, and to engage with the crisis of trust in our democracy. As such, things like increasing accountability and participation – and investing time and effort into deliberative processes – are key parts of our calls for community power. These measures are not about leaving people to deliver their own public services, they are about giving people power over those services.

Indeed, this word – ‘power’ – is perhaps the key thing that explains the difference between our approach and the Big Society. We want to shift power down to people and communities and to democratise the state, to address the hoarding of power by political and corporate elites that has driven the crises we see today.

The Big Society had no such critique of the status quo. It saw volunteerism and localism as incontestable virtues, and promoted them in an at times confused way. Our agenda contains within it a deep level of engagement with the issues facing Britain – and we see community power as huge part of the solution.