The Challenge of the Big Society

OurKingdom launches an investigation into the challenges of the Big Society.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
20 September 2010

On 19 July, speaking in Liverpool, the Prime Minister committed the Coalition to his Big Society programme.

He had promised it in the General Election and its origins in Tory Party thinking go back to Total Politics: Labour's Command State (pdf) edited by Greg Clark in 2003. Cameron insisted that it is not just about spin or re-positioning and pledged a Big Society Bank to ensure there was finance for 'Big Society' development:

"It’s about liberation –the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.... This is not an initiative. We have not hired a Czar. These are not ‘pilots’ that will be ‘rolled out’. This is a big advance for people power. The people power I have spoken about for years."

This is quite a promise and OurKingdom will be asking Conservatives to spell out what they think it means. Across the third sector of not-for-profit organisations and think tanks such as the Young Foundation and the RSA there has been a quickening of interest, see David Wilcox over at Social Reporter.

With their semi-official website, The Big Society Network, is discussing participatory budgeting, pioneered in Porto Allegre and long and fruitlessly lobbied for by leftwingers and liberals when New Labour was in office (for example, the Power Enquiry ran an experiment to show it could work in the UK).

The Big Society therefore presents a clear challenge to the left. It is now widely accepted that for all the positive reforms New Labour legislated, it failed to tell the country what they were about. Even long time Blair supporter, Peter Kellner, after listing their achievements concluded that New Labour's "leaders seem to have forgotten that progressive politics is a moral crusade".

Now Labour finds that Cameron has more than thrown off the rebarbarative branding of Thatcher's 'There is no such thing as Society'. He has moved the Tory party and the Coalition government into the heart of the UK's communities in a 'bottom up' approach aimed at empowering the poor and marginalised.

So to start OurKingdom's investigation of the challenge of the Big Society, Niki Seth-Smith has approached people and institutions on the left to question them on how they see it. Today, we publish Sundar Katwala of the Fabians, tomorrow Neal Lawson of Compass, and on Wednesday Will Straw of Left Foot Forward in the build up to Labour's Party Conference.

You can read more of OurKingdom's Big Society debate here.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData