David Blackburn

The Big Society in crisis?

The Big Society in crisis?
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An ungodly alliance has converged on the Big Society. From the left, The Voice of the Mirror, the Unions and Steve Richards have published diverse critiques; from the right, Philip Johnston has joined Peter Oborne in suggesting that the policy is suffering a near-death experience. The Local Government Association and councillors have added their disgruntled voices as the day has progressed.

All in all, it’s quite a circus and the government’s gentle response has been totally inadequate. Francis Maude penned an article for today’s Times (£), which, despite being commended by Tim Montgomerie, couldn’t really distract from the mauling Maude received on Newsnight last night. The agenda’s myriad problems were distilled into a 10 minute ambush: the term ‘Big Society’ has been overused to the point of being meaningless, and cutting funding from the voluntary sector has left charities with the time-consuming burden of fundraising, which is no easy task in the current climate. The ‘army of volunteers’ that is to replace the state can do nothing without cash upfront. Besides, I don’t share Maude’s enthusiasm. The recent demonstrations outside town halls and local libraries are indicative of the demand for government; demand will not evaporate simply because the supply has been removed.  

However, these problems are not terminal. Given time and economic recovery, the voluntary sector will develop an effective fundraising arm, and it can be supported by government where necessary. There is much still to be done, but Cameron’s radical vision has a long-term future and Labour realises this. As Martin Bright has written, the left worries that it has no alternative to the Big Society and it fears losing the central reservation of social policy, won by Tony Blair with such ease in the mid-90s. Tactically then, the Big Society has been a success of sorts, despite its practical shortcomings.