Opinion: Big Society is a Big Opportunity for Liberal Democrats

I write this having just got back from a very successful Lib Dem Conference in Liverpool. Everyone seemed to be in good heart, and keen to see what a Liberal Democrat government minister really looked like. Conference is a great occasion to talk and listen to activists directly, and so I really got stuck in. On more than one occasion I was “doing a Simon Hughes” and trying to attend multiple meetings at once! But, though we covered a diverse range of topics, there were two recurring themes – localism and the Big Society.

Localism shouldn’t need any explanation for Liberal Democrats. It’s been part of our ethos since I got started in politics all those years ago, and remains at the forefront of what we’re trying to achieve in government. We know Warrington is different from Windsor, and that Newbury is different from Newcastle in a way Labour never did. We actually “get” localism, and that’s why “one-size-fits-all” politics is being swept away.

The Big Society on the other hand is not something Liberal Democrats have quite got their heads round yet. Though coined by David Cameron it is a phrase Liberal Democrats need to get used to and take ownership of. Like you, I hadn’t used it at all pre-election. But during the coalition negotiations, it quickly became apparent from talking to Oliver Letwin that what they call the Big Society was a very close match to the “Community Politics” ideas Liberals have been promoting since the ‘70s. Power should flow upwards from the grassroots, and not downwards from Whitehall.

It isn’t just for middle class Nimbies either. I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to teach my civil servants two new words: Marple and Offerton. Both are places in my constituency. Marple is a place where civic engagement is a way of life. It has a cricket club, a tennis club, a Women’s Institute, a choir, a scout group – you name it, Marple’s got it. But just two and a half miles down the road lies Offerton, which hasn’t. The Big Society is about giving the power, the capacity and the ambition to Offerton, and every other community in the country so that they are able to fulfil their potential.

The Big Society is a huge opportunity for Liberal Democrats to set in train that complete reordering of power that we have campaigned so long and hard to achieve.

Yes it will be hard. But the scale of the financial mess we have to clear up means that business as usual just isn’t an option any more. We have to use that moment of crisis to lever in the positive reforms that are so urgently needed.

That was my conference message, and this is the message I’m passing onto you now: The Big Society is here, it’s real, and it’s coming to local communities near you.

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  • Surely there is a massive contradiction in your “localism” pledges.

    Budgets to local authorities are being massively reduced and you are blocking councils from increasing the local rates. You are passing the buck from central to local government and at the same time removing resources from the local government organisations.

    To someone like me, who often works with local authorities on projects, it is so obvious and so clear that the biggest inefficiency is that the are all organised in completely different ways, with different departments doing different things and using different systems to do it. This is hugely wasteful and more perscriptive central management would do it.

  • Have the LibDem’s in westminster “jumped the shark”?.

    It’s amazing how after a nice chat with the tories nearly everything they want to do is mostly what LibDem’s want to do. Maybe you should’ve been having these chats pre-election, and then these quite frankly ludicrous Road to Damascus type conversions, wouldn’t be happening every other week.

  • @Neil Bradbury
    Surely it is no less a nebulous concept than “localism”, is there an exact definition of this?

    “This is hugely wasteful and more perscriptive central management would do it.”
    Would have to disagree totally with this, NATS, Tax Systems, NHS Systems and many more – all done centrally, all had/still have major issues and all were way over initial costings.

    A better solution would be for central specifications (mainly restricted to interfaces with central/other local systems). Systems could then share data as required and local councils could find solutions that match their requirements.

  • @Alex M
    Has anyone actually suggested that they should?


    You obviously have insiders at Conservative HQ as I can’t recall anything like that coming out, would you care to name your sources?


    One of the comments from your links made the point that whilst you’d want the local Gov to collect rubbish, there would be nothing wrong with arranging community litter sweeps. In addition, parents could teach their children to tidy up after themselves (i.e. pick up their litter), this would take time, care and effort to nurture but why would it cost money?

    One of the biggest problems with the progressive need for a big state is that the individual adopts the “not my problem, I pay my taxes so someone else can do it” attitude – that’s where society starts to break down. I also noticed in the comments on that particular link that there was a lot of Victorian bashing – which is probably a reflection on the lack of history teaching in schools.

    The Vs may have got many things wrong (i.e. they’re no different to the current crop of politicians – regardless of party), but when they put there mind to it they tended to do things properly (just look at the mining commission documents, try and imagine where we would be know if they hadn’t started all of reforms your commentators take for granted – e.g. free education). Also, the average Joe/Joan probably did care more about their local community (of course, those communities were a lot smaller in those days so easier to care about). Perhaps this may have not been because they were generally kinder in nature – but it could have been that they had a greater understanding of the impact of peoples actions on their local community.

  • @Alex M
    Apologies – the quotes didn’t appear:
    1. “The WI and scout troops are never going to be an effective substitute for professionally delivered mainstream services.”
    2. “Big Society’ label as a smoke screen for privatisation and state retrenchment. “

  • Alex M
    “more questionable attitudes towards the poor, the vulnerable, workers’ organisation and rights, what constituted appropriate levels of remuneration for labouring people, markets as the ‘natural’ order of things”

    At the risk of sounding overly cynical – oh what the heck, I probably am anyway – that sentence has elements of truth for modern politics (all parties).

    “be articulated more effectively as such”
    Well, I’m sure that’s the problem with political buzz phrases, it probably means as much to the bod on the street as “Community Politics” or “Localism”.

  • Everybody appears to have their own take on Big Society – this is mine: when all these middle classy, grey suited gentlemen commuting from Surrey to Waterloo stop littering, without a second thought, trains with newspapers and used hankies, that’s Big Society. When their wives stop driving their little darlings one by one in massive SUVs to schools and instead join forces with other mums, that’s BS. When they teach their precious offspring not to drop rubbish by the road side or even school yard, that’s BS. When head teachers take citizenship studies seriously, make room for the subject in the time table and take care that a properly qualified, society-aware teacher is in charge, that’s BS. When the mums and dads back at home stop slamming the door in my face when collecting charitable envelopes, that’s BS. Plus all those who tell me that instead of ‘begging’ for a pound for a charity the Government should look after everybody’s needs, but not raise taxes, that’s BS. When the hard working City traders return to the leafy Surrey late at night with their bank balances bulging with bonuses and they can’t wait to donate generously to the local Youth Club which is about to close, that’s BS. In other words it’s about a long view on what makes a healthy and happy society, not another short term, party political or tribally motivated ‘scheme’ to catch media headlines. It’s about migrating from our adversarial interpretation of the society to a more connected, transparent and collaborative community.

  • matthew fox 2nd Oct '10 - 1:28pm

    The Big Society will be a big opportunity for Labour Party. It is a marketing slogan dreamed up by Team Cameron, Clegg & Co have swallowed it, hook line and sinker.

    It is a shame that the ” Lib Dem Voice ” has gone silent on all the bad economic news that is coming out on a daily basis.

    Export orders fell in September, undermining the Cameron/Clegg/Murdoch economic policy.

  • Patrick Smith 2nd Oct '10 - 4:37pm

    The Tory `Big Society’ is a somewhat nebulous concept although trailed as a clarion call for more `localism’.

    I agree with AS that it should be applauded if it means in practice for Councils and local residents the delivery of new devolved `hands-on’ powers on planning and budget etc.

    One inalieanble legacy of Labour was the meddlesome and interference of Central Government with the daily democratic machinery of local government by the minnions of tick boxing,halucinating targets via the tonnes of pieces of so- called bench marking bureacracy-posted into the in trays of all heads of departments at the Town Hall.

    But to date, according to a recent `Newsnight’ despite some repeated questioning to one Local Government Minister we are still waiting to learn from him, what precise new local powers will be placed in the hands of Local Councillors and local residents,over this 5 year Parliament.

    The Tories have only recently become converts to the import of `Localism’ and their version `Big Society’ seems to me to be more dependent on voluntarism.

    Voluntarism is of course important to recognise and reward and Councils should in fact be more forthcoming in making `Civic Awards’ to local fund raisers ,sports coaches,small business empreneurs and so on, who might support the re-opening of a local post office or sponsor community safety training to female employees.

    It is the course of local history that Liberals followed by L/D s founded and developed `Community Politics’-I think in the late 1960`s in either Sheffield or Liverpool or both- that by dint of its name denotes that Walthamstow is different to Windsor or Westmorland.

    The mantle of community leadership and acquiesence to the willing signing up to policies that fully recognise different cultural makeup and demands of each locality, is very important to apprehend.The Tories are in fact still `Johnny Come Lately`s to this way of thinking but clearly learning potential welcome in this shared local project, if new fruit is to grow.

    If the Tories mean what they say, it will also be to their credit, as they are now destined to embark on a new pioneering learning curve, in Local Government, that Liberals invented 50 years ago.

    But the caveat is that the proof of the pudding still has to be fully digested,as to the new democratic rights,responsibilities and new powers and these should be spelt out now with some clarity by the Tories, at their Party Conference in Birmingham.

    If the Tories are to be taken more seriously on democratic devolved reforms of Local Government they will also accede to the history and experience of time, that `Community Politcs’ has asked for local people to be closer to decision making powers 50 years ago…

    Simon Hughes as always, made a telling speech at Confernce (22/9/10) that I looked up later.

    He said,

    “We will be faiing generations of Liberals if we do not seize this opportunity to reach across the Country and spread the message of Liberal Democracy far and wide…..’This is the time for talking and working to show what liberal democracy can do in all our Councils and in all our communities’….

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