Nick Nielsen & Richard Wilson argue that Cameron must focus on the short term not the future if he wants to save the Big Society

Prime Minister David Cameron has come to the rescue of the big society[1]. Phew… it was close this time. Entering the lair of the big society’s most vocal enemies, the Observer, Cameron fought them off argument by argument, and so the big society was saved to see another news cycle.

In particular, Cameron bravely singled out the two core critiques of the big society. That it is a, ‘cover for the cuts,’ and that ‘voluntary bodies are being starved of state money’ which will undermine the big society. Cameron answered these criticisms saying, “I was talking about social responsibility long before the cuts. Building a stronger, bigger society is something we should try and do whether spending is going up or down”. Addressing the issue of voluntary sector cuts he asked people to,

“look beyond the headlines and see a much bigger structural change in how the voluntary sector can work in future. We are in the process of opening up billions of pounds’ worth of government contracts so charities and social enterprises can compete for the first time”.

Fair enough, and this is all true and to an extent convincing. However, it avoids the most important issue: what we do right now? It is already clear that some council cuts are undermining existing big society capacity in their areas, potentially irreparably. It’s hard to imagine the voluntary sector taking advantage of the new, more open service grants in the future when they’re already on their knees.

We put this question to David Cameron today at a Big Society Network event[2]. His response was ‘we’re just taking spending back to 2007 levels’. This maybe the case in terms of top-line budgets but it is absolutely not the case in terms of the core ‘big society’ capacity, which is often seen as a politically low-risk cut. With many voluntary organisations going out of business or losing more than half of their funds it feels more like going back to 1907, than 2007 spending.

Cameron and his team must openly recognise the reality of the cuts, the associated pain and the inherent risks of devastating the sector that supports the big society, and on the basis of a grounded commitment rather than blind optimism, invite others in to shape the vision and lead the big society. For example, it must acknowledge that some councils are cutting voluntary sector grants due to perceived political or managerial expediency, and that this may undermine the big society project.

This kind of approach is already happening in some enlightened councils such as Sutton and Lambeth, and at the national level the OurSociety group are having a good go at providing some effective collective leadership where the government has so far failed.

Supporting localism does not mean that you never comment on what other parts of government do, it just means you don’t order them what to do. Leadership in these times of uncertainty requires some clarity and detail of what is and what isn’t going to help foster the big society today, not just in the future. We need Cameron to step up to this challenge. He must help guide all parts of British government now, when they need it most. This is not the same as being statist.

David Cameron seems to have a particular gift for big tent politics; he needs to adopt the same approach to the big society, whilst applying to building the big society the same missionary zeal his government has for reducing the deficit – the challenge is just as hard, probably harder.

If this happens, the big society project may still have life left in it. Though I suspect this will not be the last time Cameron will have to come to its rescue.

[1] ‘Big Society’ changed to ‘big society’ in Cameron’s Observer article. As the pro-noun became an adjective, it seems to have signalled that the brand is being decoupled from the concept – perhaps this is more inclusive?


picture credits –

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