Big Society vs Community Politics: grounds for agreement, grounds for disagreement

David Cameron’s recent speech laying out his vision of the Big Society provides a yardstick to judge it against traditional Liberal Democrat (and before that Liberal) beliefs in community politics.

The underlying motivation for the Big Society, as expressed by Cameron, could have come from one of the many Lib Dem / Liberal pamphlets or articles about community politics:

It comes from the belief that over many decades this country has become too centralised, too bureaucratic and too top-down.

And this is not just inefficient and overly-bureaucratic but also has an insidious cultural effect, because it robs people of responsibility.

Regaining this shared sense of personal responsibility goes to the heart of my political philosophy – in fact to the heart of my whole approach to life.

The use of “responsibility” may be more traditionally Conservative vocabulary, but it compliments the community politics ideal of helping people to help themselves rather than doing everything for them.

Big Society logoFrom this starting point, Cameron laid out three policy areas.

First, decentralisation of power. A radical devolving of power not just to local government, but beyond that to neighbourhoods and communities.

Decentralisation was a Liberal Democrat demand whilst many in the Conservatives were still loving centralisation, though in our party it more often takes the form of believing in decentralising to local councils, but very little further. Cameron’s belief in going beyond councils is not one at odds however with views often expressed at Liberal Democrat conferences, even if more in fringe meetings and speeches from the floor than in expressions of the party’s official position.

Turning to provision of services, Cameron said:

The second key area is public service reform: opening up public services so that anyone can offer to provide them.

Think “free schools” and you get many Liberal Democrats saying, “Here’s where my agreement stops”. However, the party has often had a rather unusual relationship to the question of who should provide public services. The party’s general support of diversity, love of cooperatives or mutuals, belief in local provision and local accountability and suspicions of state power could naturally lead to many forms of local provision of services through means other than staff on a public sector payroll. And yet, it never really quite has on a significant scale.

Then on to Cameron’s third point:

The third part of our Big Society approach is social action people giving their time and effort to support causes that matter to them.

As with his general principle, this fits comfortably alongside the ideas behind community politics.

Overall then Cameron’s speech suggests that much of the Big Society in itself should not provide a problem for Liberal Democrats – and indeed can be welcomed as a different name for approaches the party has long been arguing for. But the party is likely to be put on the spot again and again over the second point: who does the party think should provide services? Is it all about provision by local public bodies answerable to the council, or is it about more than just public bodies and more than just councils?

To find out more about Community Politics, see this short introduction to Community Politics resources I’ve put together.

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  • Geoffrey

    I agree that the accountability of Free Schools is an issue, but there is an even bigger issue about the accountability of academy chains. These are effectively replacement LEAs (old style) – they appoint teachers centrally, can move them from school to school, provide professional development, have common admissions etc. They are accountable to absolutely noone. They are not even subject to inspection. One of these organisations could run a string of underperforming schools without penalty for ever.

    For me, the bigger issue with free schools is not just who provides local services, but who decides who the local provider should be? The Education White Paper makes it absolutely clear (and this has been confirmed by the DfE that when a new school is required (and there will be a lot of new primary schools over the next 5 to 10 years) there is an expectation that it will be a free school or an academy, even if the local community prefer a local authority maintained school.

    My final concern with schools and localisation is the introduction in the Academies Act (which the Lib Dems supported) of the right for the Secretary of State to convert any school into an academy; even if the head, staff, governors, parents, students and local community are opposed.

  • Many Lib Dem controlled councils have supported devolved neighbourhoods, eg the doomed Tower Hamlets BC in London, where racism took hold in one or two neighbourhoods and accusations of misuse of power over local markets also played a role. I would be interested to know whether neighbourhood activities played a part in the fall from grace of Islington BC under Lib Dem control? Walsall under labour control was widely said to have devolved to too many ultra local neighbourhoods to make good sense, and became nationally notorious.

    South Somerset DC, on the other hand, has operated a well received devolved system for many years, and Lib Dems have now been in charge for donkeys’ years.

    Devolution has to be thought through, and planned carefully, and tweaked if problems are discovered. There are down-sides as well as upsides. As has been said, democratic election is a key facet of devolution. Our party has sometimes thought that devolution is the answer to everything, and therefore, anything devolved must be good. As explained above, 25 years ago, we would never have gone into coalition with the Tories, because Thatcher was a relentless centraliser. These days, with weaker identifiable ideology in the Lib Dems, a coalition with a more decentralising style of Tory has been much more attractive to the party. Unfortunately, scratching the ideological surface reveals that the ideologies of the two parties are poles apart. At present, realities of power, and worry about what may happen if the link breaks, hold the two together….

  • There are too many conflicting messages, on one hand you have the handing down powers, on the other hand you have Mr Bumble telling councils to share CEO’s and back office staff, which will inevitably encourage large providers to run council services nationally.

  • Geoffrey Payne

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that members supported free schools. I meant supported (as in voted for) in parliament.

  • David Allen 20th Dec '10 - 1:12pm

    Community politics, I think, was generally viewed as cost-neutral, a means of improving services and public participation in deciding priorities by engaging extra involvement from the community. The “big society” comes hand in hand with a drive to cut costs, and this is bound to mean a fundamental difference.

    “Chaos” in the supply of services, as advocated by New Toryliberal, will mean that the well organised and capable middle class will find ways to get what they want. The poor won’t. Then Cameron will take the funds away and tell the poor that they are the victims of their own inability to get off their backsides and join in the big society.

    Geoffrey Payne points out that working through local government provides a measure of public accountability. The fact that this is not perfect does not invalidate the concept. At least there is some constraint on what a council can get away with. It is poorer when there is single party rule, but even then, it is possible to challenge a council which is clearly not acting in the interests of all its residents. A free school or other non-public organisation has no responsibility to the community as a whole and can afford to dismiss any such challenge.

    Local authorities also have the advantages of permanence and a certain minimum necessary level of professionalism. In my area, the “big society” approach enthusiastically raised the funds and got a skatepark built ten years ago, which is great, but when all the kids involved outgrew it, who had to pick up the pieces on maintenance and vandalism etc? Why, the council, of course.

  • david clayton 23rd Dec '10 - 8:34am

    How naive.
    Sorry but do you really think this big society guff has any substance? The Conservatives want to drastically reduce the size of the state. In doing this they are using a number of rhetorical devices to cover up what is going on. If some good stuff results at a local level that is fine by them, and they will be first to take the credit. If it all turns to chaos they will be nowhere near it and will blame the local authorities running that area who are most likely to be Lib Dem or Labour.
    I understand your criticism of centralisation but there are often good reasons for it. At a local level the battle for resources can lead to competition between social groups in a particular area and accusations that one lot or another are somehow cheating. I for one get worried when different groups of “community leaders” get involved in this business. They are not elected, councillors are. Centralisation can be useful in helping to ensure equality.
    Also when “anyone” can be allowed to provide social services, and there is money for it, “anyone” will and some of these will be crooks. There are an awful lot of people out there prepared to say and do anything in order to make money and hang the consequences for those who the service is provided for.

    And as is outlined above al this is taking place against the extreme economic inequality built into our economic system. You might believe in free markets but the majority of large corporations dominating our system certainly do not. Their guiding star is maximising profits whatever the consequences may be and in countries like ours only central government is powerful enough to resist them.

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