The Social Business

Big Society – or People Like Us?

David Cameron wrote, in the Observer yesterday, about his vision for the Big Society.

Before I write this, I feel I need to come clean about my political leanings. I’ve never voted Tory, have voted Labour most of the time, and have voted Lib Dem and Green on other occasions. I’m certainly not, and never have been, a strong supporter of any party, or a member of any. But, as I wrote in the Guardian last Wednesday, growing up in Liverpool in the 1980s means that I am pretty suspicious of the Tories, no matter how much they try to tell me that I should give them a chance.

But I do find a fair bit of what they’re saying interesting. How could I not? As someone who works with social entrepreneurs, I’m bound to be interested in a party that sees social entrepreneurs playing a big part in improving society and delivering services. I’m also a fairly big critic of the State, and do think that we waste a lot of money and human potential through centralised, bureaucratic decision making.

The strapline for my business is Make it your business to change the world. I bet it’s one that Steve Hilton would be proud of – bringing in the idea of business changing society – but also with a play on words which suggests that you shouldn’t wait round for other people to change things. Make it your business. Do it yourself. Be the change you want to see in the world.

So why am I sceptical? Fundamentally, I don’t trust where the Tories are coming from. I can’t help but think that deep down, there’s a deserving poor/undeserving poor narrative behind much of their thinking on society. People need to pull their socks up – and the State needs to facilitate that pulling up of socks. For too long it’s pulled people’s socks up for them – and whole generations have forgotten how to do it themselves.

I wouldn’t wholly disagree with that. But I worry where that goes next. How long do you wait for people to re-learn how to pull up their socks? And how much do you take into consideration other factors which may impact on the ability to learn the skill – and which caused the loss of the skill in the first place? Whilst, yes, ultimately I believe we each have to take responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in, there are far too many people who find themselves in situations which mean it’s very hard to progress. Wider social injustices – over generations – mean that change will take time. Sorry if this makes me a bleeding-heart liberal, but society is unfair. Many Tories don’t understand that, because, to put it simply, they’ve never directly experienced that unfairness – and it has never held them back.

Of course it will take time to change society. I imagine David Cameron would agree that, if he gets his chance, he won’t change society in one term. Yet I think their Big Society argument is too simplistic, and doesn’t really take into account what real life is like – and what may happen if Big Society replaces Big State.

They’re very excited about what we can learn from the online world. I love all the Web 2.0 stuff – the generosity of communities which maintain wikipedia, develop open source software and actively support eachother and share information through Twitter. But real life, in real neighbourhoods, is a million miles away from the online world. Part of the attraction of online networking is that you can scour the world for people who share similar interests to you. People define themselves into tight communities, where yes, there is some diversity and healthy debate, but where there is a lot of common ground and shared purpose. Quick progress is made because we find people like us to make progress with.

The places where most of us live aren’t like that. And face-to-face progress on issues that face my neighbourhood can be a lot more difficult than online collaboration to fix a website. Why? Because people are people. Put people in a room and they’ll argue. They’ll each bring their agendas. They’ll block progress on this issue because they felt they weren’t listened to on the last issue. They’ll enjoy being listened to – but won’t make too much of an effort to listen to others. Is that a bleak view of humanity? Perhaps it is. But have you ever been to an Allotment Committee meeting? Or a Tenants and Residents Association AGM? Wonderful, real, human, community action. But as labyrinthine as, and potentially less accountable than your worst local Council meeting.

I don’t hear the Tories telling us this story. All I hear is that there’ll suddenly be a great upsurge in community activity, with a great sense of shared purpose to build a new Britain. I don’t hear about the upheaval a retreat of the State could cause – and the difficulties that would come from an uneven patchwork of community action. Do they really believe that the people who are worst off are the ones that will benefit most from the opportunity to do it themselves? And are we ready for the friction that will come as communities which will take time to organise see how early-adopters are surging ahead, with the support of the State?

I think in broad terms the Tories are right on a number of issues. I do think the relationship between the State and the people has to change. I do think that more of us have to start taking responsibility for improving society, rather than retreating into our cosy homes and consuming our way out of having to worry too much about the slow disintegration of the community around us. I just think they’re being simplistic – and that their approach would lead to further social division as those who have power, income and contacts do well – setting up schools and improving services for people like us, whilst people who do need a helping hand are told that you just have to do it yourselves.

Categories: Public services, Social change, Social enterprise, Social entrepreneurs, Social Justice, Uncategorized

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  1. Rob – I broadly agree with your analysis, although I have had some more positive experiences back in the 1970s and 1980s of local Tories in Kensington and Chelsea backing what’s now the Westway Development Trust, Tory GLC support for Trusts I help set up, and Michel Heseltine’s support for Groundwork amnd other initiatives. It could be argued this in the tradition of asset-based community development. (See Bob Colenutt for a good perspective overall
    What I don’t understand is Cameron’s enthusiasm for the far more radical Saul Alinsky Maybe the researchers didn’t get beyond Obama did Alinsky training.
    Or perhaps the “people like us” do the complex stuff, and poorer neighbourhoods get the 5000 Alinsky-trained organisers for campaigning.
    And I agree wholeheartedly with your point about the messiness of local action. The web doesn’t fix that.

  2. “But have you ever been to an Allotment Committee meeting? Or a Tenants and Residents Association AGM? Wonderful, real, human, community action. But as labyrinthine as, and potentially less accountable than your worst local Council meeting.”

    Yes. And it concerns me that all the major parties seem to be falling over themselves to back self-selecting groups in the community running stuff but none of them have any sensible ideas for reinvigorating and improving the democratically elected and accountable groups of local people (councils) that should already be doing a lot of the stuff that Big Society (and its Labour or Liberal equivalents) will do.

    Many councils now are rubbish (some are good and, for that reason, under-reported) but that isn’t because democratic local government is fundamentally a bad idea, the problem is that as a result of the polices of both Labour and Tory governments, councils have little or no power to take their own decisions and exist largely to take the blame for policies decided by central government, so being a councillor is no longer and attractive option for many people who’d do a good job.

    For the many people in UK who’d like a say in how local services are run but don’t actually want to run them themselves – possibly because they may have a full time job, a family and some friends – effective local government is the answer.

  3. Lot going on here. But a few points from a weary traveller, recently back from Sweden – that utopia of Big Society and Free Schools. Well, it seems to me the Tories can’t see the wood for the trees, and there’s plenty over there. In truth, the vibrancy of its civil society is directed related to a Big State. The two go hand in hand; Ying & Yang. The Swedish state’s investment in civil society is plain to see, and it doesn’t dictate like ours does. The idea that you can liberate civil society to meet all needs by rolling back the state is, therefore, farcical. Same crack for the schools. In Sweden, there’s enough money in the system to pay for diversity; not here where the tax man, post Thatcher, is considered a thief.

    Watch it on ‘skills’. It precisely because of neo-liberal reductivism (everything is a skill and, implicitly then, folk can be ‘skilled up) that we are in this mess. Any educationalist will tell you that.

    Bourdieu’s thesis on the hidden hand of structural and micro violence deserves an airing here. Unemployment, poverty, exploitation; as well as racism and stigmatisation rarely get an airing in politics. Only the visible is worthy of comment: anti-social behaviour, by name.

    No sense that even this violence is also directed at the self in the form of drug abuse and even suicide. Rather it, like all other social woes, becomes the cause of poverty – rather than symptoms. Did Cameron ever even contemplate such a thing?

    At the core of all this is the diminution of the concept of democracy. As politicians haggle after floating voters in marginal constituencies (perhaps, at best, 10% of us) so any notion of something more participative blows away in the wind.

    I’ll be hoping for a hung parliament and the faint prospect of a ‘methodological turn’, where folk start demanding evidence and reasons from one another. Only then can this ‘last great blood sport’ called politics be radically re-invented into something worthy of the term ‘democratic’.

  4. I totally agree with David’s comments.

    Cameron’s goal in all of this is to decontaminate the Tories’ brand. There’s no suggestion from the Tories that there should be efforts to break up bureaucratic corporations, allow private-sector workers to form co-ops and get state funding to do so.

  5. Good piece – I think it could be messy if people are left to their own devices and my biggest worry would be more faith schools, with sexist/homophobic agendas.

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