The Big Society

The way we have been living, spending and behaving – combined with an overweening state – has led to a diminution of human potential and to operating in ever decreasing circles. We seem to value ourselves by what we do and what we buy (or cannot buy) – rather than whether we are good, kind, thoughtful or have other personally admirable and altruistic traits. We follow prescribed routes from centralised diktats where thinking, personal responsibility, professionalism and non-conformity are driven out by targets and tick boxes.

In 2007 I wrote a chapter for a book ‘Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism in the 21st Century’. This starts from the basis that New Liberalism was the outcome of a process of inventing a new kind of state a century ago and that after decades of over-centralisation we need to reinvent it now along social liberal lines.

Much of what I wrote was to do with how we adapt to the ending of the old order, where state, church (or other religions), family, schools, the judiciary and other pillars of society that governed our ‘norms’ no longer held their previous sway or respect.

An increasingly authoritarian approach to almost everything under Labour moved us towards a population controlled by legal parameters rather than social ones.

Change has to come from within – and it is about the behaviour of the people who are part of those structures. This is not about morality – but more about engagement – where consideration for others and the common good comes as high at least on out list as simply our own well-being.

There is a genuine and urgent need to radically reform and change the balance between the state and the people  – that is now under way and part of the answer. The even bigger challenge is  – how do we change behaviour?

0 thoughts on “The Big Society

  1. I am now beginning to understand why you are so genuinely comfortable with the Tories. They talk very much the same talk. You may well believe it but they do not.

    You talk about the old order but there is nothing here at all about the new order – for example the cronies who run the companies that will now take over the health service for private profit. Wealth created for individuals and shareholders. They have no notion of societal good. Like your blog above let’s not even get started on the banks- the real old order.

    I suppose you are aware that even many Tories think the big society concept is tosh, doomed to failure and will inevitably result in terrible effects on services (I’ve given up the term “public”- not mentioned once in your blog above.)

  2. Adam – there’s a piece in my chapter which, whilst it doesn’t address the poverty or inequality issue directly, it does try to address the underlying reason for such a pervasive relationship between inequality and social outcomes. Can’t post – very long!

    But it goes into the huge stress caused by living at the bottom of the pecking order, on the lowest rung – with its issues of status, disrespect and exclusion.

    Drawing out the links between inequality and social problems, for example, in relation to crime – isn’t being soft on crime – it actually gives us far more scope for action to tackle crime than just wringing our hands muttering, “they’re so evil”. It’s not being soft on crime – it’s tackling crime. But Labour – whenever I raise this kind of approach – simply call me soft on crime.

    What Labour have done in our country is to allow a society to develop where inequality, exclusion, stress and low-level tension is the norm. As a report by the Young Foundation put it, looking at east London, “mutual support and neighbourliness have declined; isolation is increasing; mental illness is more prevalent than it was half a century ago; the signs of day-to-day anger and tension are everywhere”.

    So we need to reduce stress and inequality, with less emphasis on status and more on cooperation and friendship.

    Status and friendship have their roots in fundamentally different ways of resolving the problem of competition for scarce resources. Status is based on pecking order, coercion and privileged access to resources, while friendship is based on a more egalitarian basis of social obligations and reciprocity.

    I don’t think the concept is ‘tosh’ – I think it is a really necessary step towards re-learning how to value each other.

  3. I think it is excellent. The idea of a Big Society which would encourage people to volunteer and give time to help their individual communities or the communities of others. The problem, Lynne, is that people involved in volunteering are often deterred by the lengthy regulatory systems and processes that makes people reluctant to give time and energy to help. For example, some people are told to wait until the CRB process is complete until they could volunteer, resulting in many weeks or even months (depending on how busy the Criminal Records Bureau’ Department is) and that drives potential applicants away.

    The need for greater flexibility is also essential. I think to have a real impact is to have a process which is not centred on very detailed set of boxes, each of which has to be ticked, but rather a more flexible system that encourages people to want to be altruistic and give time for a common good.

    In terms of existing schemes, the issue of funding remains essential. The schemes are grassroots need funding to be able to tackles issues regarding inequality, exclusion, and enable communities to take responsibility. It can work but it can only work without the time-wasting, box-ticking, intrusive and expensive, inspector-led and Government office-led compliance process, which should be consigned to the dustbin. I think a more general, individualised personalisation of working with individuals and communities is likely to have more of an impact than all this tick box system.

  4. Hi Lynne, Could you tell us what volunteering work you have done in the past seven days – July 12 – July 19 – outside of your job, for free and in the spirit of forging the Big Society?

  5. Could you tell us what volunteering work you have done in the past seven days – July 12 – July 19 – outside of your job

    Now that’s unfair, just about anything she could possibly do would be labelled as “part of her job”. Community involvement is part of being an MP.

  6. “What Labour have done in our country is to allow a society to develop where inequality, exclusion, stress and low-level tension is the norm.”

    Got to disagree Lynne, all three main parties have to shoulder the blame. They are more interested in making sure their own lives are comfortable than tackle “inequality, exclusion and stress”.

    Being a full-time carer those three words sum up my existence, now I have the worry that the witch-hunt of disabled people on DLA that the ConDems are undertaking will cause her mental health problems to worsen, thanks a lot, as if my life isn’t bad enough. Still at least unlike other carers I don’t have to worry about my wife committing suicide because of that worry (which some carers are reporting that this is what the person they care for are saying) My wife simply won’t attend the review, so tell me what happens then please as I don’t know what will happen to us.

    Another word you can add to those three are “exploited”, oh, how about “isolated”, that’s another word that comes to mind.

    Big society? Don’t make me laugh, it’s merely another sound-bite piece of political nonsense made by a Prime Minister who hasn’t an idea what the real world is like.

  7. It’s not unfair. I’m asking about her as an individual. If, for example, she goes in once a week to read at her child’s / grandchild’s school that is outside of her role as an MP. She may be baking cakes for an end of term cake sale as we write or helping out in a local charity shop. How about delivering leaflets on behalf of a residents’ association or running the local scout group? There are endless ways for MPs to act as ordinary members of the public. Over to you Lynne.

  8. The idea of a Big Society may be viewed with scepticism but it proves that volunteers can and do bring new skills and experiences.

    To offer help to those who need it is not just the job of professionals but the responsibility of the wider local community. Even being a school governor, you are contributing to improving outcomes, performance and the general school facilities.

    There is clearly a huge number of people all over the country able to help others but more needs to be done to encourage them to get out and volunteer. Every person has their own motivation of volunteering, but some people may have commitments such as raising a family, children, caring for someone who is elderly or disabled, or a whole host of reasons, that may make them unavailable to volunteer. However, I think the idea of a Big Society is a good one.

  9. Big Society = mass protests at the indecent cuts you’re enforcing upon the country.

    Why didn’t you mention any of this in your manifesto, Lynne?

    This is not ‘social Liberal’ it’s neoliberal and an extreme version.

  10. Lynne, it’s official – you are now beyond a joke.

    How do you sleep at night?

  11. Most people are too busy ‘volunteering’ to work many extra hours for the private sector so that they don’t get sacked.

    This is just a sick attempt to try and sack people in the public sector (eg – qualified librarians) then have them back as volunteers because we do actually need them.

    Big Society = another fig leaf for brutal cuts that will affect the poorest.

  12. Anyone else think this post is written a style very different to Lynne’s other ones? The lengthy response is also uncharacteristic, if broadly nonsensical:

    “…there’s a piece in my chapter which, whilst it doesn’t address the poverty or inequality issue directly, it does try to address the underlying reason for such a pervasive relationship between inequality and social outcomes.”

    I don’t think the relationship between inequality and social outcome is a Featherstone discovery – the question is, what should be done about it?

    And as for this nugget:

    “Status and friendship have their roots in fundamentally different ways of resolving the problem of competition for scarce resources. Status is based on pecking order, coercion and privileged access to resources, while friendship is based on a more egalitarian basis of social obligations and reciprocity.”

    This means what, exactly? Are you suggesting we tackle inequality by relying on ‘friendships’? Like in the good old days when friendly rich people threw crumbs to the poor in the workhouse? Seriously – can you explain?

    “What Labour have done in our country is to allow a society to develop where inequality, exclusion, stress and low-level tension is the norm.”

    Are you really, really serious about this statement? Are you genuinely suggesting ‘stress and low-level tension’ is a Labour invention? Did you really mean to say inequality is something that has become apparent only in the last 13 years?

    You are old enough to remember Thatcher. You also went to school, so I presume you know a little about history. So, please stop writing this silly nonsense (although I have a funny feeling you didn’t write this post!).

  13. Also – looking at Cameron’s speech today, this is not really a nice, cuddly volunteering drive. It’s about people ‘setting up schools’, ‘building affordable housing’ and ‘tackling youth unemployment’. Basically, it’s a cover for the Government cutting public services. Do you agree with this, Lynne?

  14. I’m sorry, this may be uncomfortable, and not fit with Dave’s rhetoric, but this country is FULL of people who we value for their kindness, altruism, generosity – oh and thier volunteering, which has indeed been increasing steadily and quite significantly – guess what – without Dave’s BS idea (why does he talk about this as if it is some amazing new concept that no-one has ever thought of before?).
    This is utter rubbish, trying to inject some feel-good cloud of candy-floss to distract us from the real message – that your, our, public services are under threat, not just because of cuts, but because of ideology that is completely disconnected from reality and cares nothing for those whose lives are less rosy-tinged than theirs have been.
    Time to get real.

  15. Oh Isla I wish so much that i had said it like that!

    And I love your new acronym for it all- BS. Genius.

    Respect.

  16. Lynne says

    Paula says

    As the balance is currently with the state (that holds the ‘power’), we can only attain a better balance provided that the state is prepared to share such power. The ball is in your court. In the context of your area of responsibility, how can the departments dealing with equality obtain such a better balance with its client set?

    There is no vested interest to do this, from the perspective of those who would have to share power with its client set, unless so directed by the political level. You might consider asking your equality teams:

    are there any disadvantaged groups that we are not currently supporting as we should due to internal lack of resource/internal expertise?

    how can that team form a partnership with representatives of that group to not only utilise the capabilities/expertise on offer in order to get that better balance you want (at present some of us must be grateful for any crumbs that fall from the equality table because we are low priority)?

    how can the team migrate from a ‘process driven’ approach rather to an ‘effectiveness culture’ (specifically not measuring success of the teams by the provision of reports and plans to schedule, but by demonstrating the effect that its activities have on the quality of life experienced by their ‘customer groups’ – based on its impact in solving know problems)?

    how can they use the expertise in the client group to fast track solutions (why does it need over a year to generate action plans)?

    Of course, it is all a matter of control and getting a better balance must come from government, giving up some control!

    Thus, in answering your question, we look to government to lead by example and change its culture and behaviour but you have to get down to specifics. The devil is in the detail!

    Thus we change behaviour by government leading by example.

  17. Haven’t seen any acknowledgement that the state is both the elected government and the Whitehall depts. Radio 4 Today has been joking about the ‘Sir Humphreys’ and quoting a finding that DfT double counted £300M of claimed savings. There is still no sign of a coordinated push to enforce competence and transparency on the spending depts, along with a quick trickle down to local govt – but I do sense something of a circling round their citadel and occasional probing into their top ranks. Their serial failure to progress over the last 40 years has been well documented. Simply telling us to bypass them and get on with it ourselves is a cop out unless there is a parallel process of reform of the Sir Humphreys – yes, its an excellent idea to harness all of us, like used to be the case, but many have been forced out of helping by petty regulations that the civil service and local govt ought to have insisted are designed in a much more appropriate manner. Not that we should just close down the failed managerial ranks and have the elected executive managing everything directly by means of its own teams, but we deserve competent public sector managers, and currently the citizenry lacks the power to make sure that that happens.

  18. If the economy is in so much trouble, why are you still managing to push through your very expensive Tory-inspired plans? Surely given the claims that state finances are in such a diabolical state, wouldn’t it be sensible to batten down a bit – have a period of stability.

    Consequently, your beloved markets are rejecting George Osborne’s budget.

    If I live long enough, I shall look forward to voting ‘NO’ to AV. Nick Clegg et al have misled their voters and I think he needs to be told that in no uncertain terms any way possible.

    You don’t seem interested in talking to your voters.

  19. I love the idea of the big society, sounds really good to me to get people to volunteer to do jobs and help others. Does this extend to MP’s pay and in particular the Prime Ministers?

  20. Just looking at Lynne’s opening gambit:

    ‘The way we have been living, spending and behaving – combined with an overweening state – has led to a diminution of human potential and to operating in ever decreasing circles.’

    What does she mean? The first bit is likely to be a ticking us for us for ‘living beyond our means’ a phrase she has been pulled up on before and is trying to write around.

    Then ‘overweening state?’ How can Lynne justify her attacks on the State (health care, children’s swimming, libraries, local policing) with a subsequent post in support of a 20mph speed limit, a move which will require, er, State implementation?

    ‘Diminution of human potential.’ How?

    And ‘operating in ever-decreasing circles.’ Meaning…? Just bonkers.

    Then she says: ‘We seem to value ourselves by what we do and what we buy (or cannot buy) – rather than whether we are good, kind, thoughtful or have other personally admirable and altruistic traits.’ Can you justify this remark Lynne? It’s very dismissive of your constituents. What evidence can you show to back up this claim?

  21. “What Labour have done in our country is to allow a society to develop where inequality, exclusion, stress and low-level tension is the norm.”

    As opposed to the constant high-level tension I feel now as a disabled person being pilloried by politicians and media and in fear of having the benefits I need to live on cut?

    “We seem to value ourselves by what we do and what we buy (or cannot buy) – rather than whether we are good, kind, thoughtful or have other personally admirable and altruistic traits.”

    I would very much like to value myself on my altruisim – I do what voluntary work my disability allows me too. But because I am currently not in PAID work, my volunteering counts for nothing, as politicians treat me as lazy, a scrounger, a liar!

    YOU are the ones sending the message that we are only worth the money we earn!

  22. @Christina

    I am about the same age as Lynne (well, just a few years younger) and all my life I have known people who volunteer and help others, so if this is what constitutes the mechanics of the big society there is nothing new. I find, however, something slightly contradictory and a point missed when politicians want “to get people to volunteer to do jobs and help others.”

    Basically I think that we all respond to the environment we are in and largely that environment is shaped by the people in charge, the people we elect, the politicians. This is also why we get upset when our elected politicians no longer stand up for the ideals they stood for at the time of election.

    In a week or two from now the politicians will have moved on to another topic and people who have volunteered and helped others in the past will continue to do so. Maybe some of the newly unemployed might join in too, but will there be some fundamental and positive change in the fabric of society as a result of this? I doubt it. Those changes need the action of government and that’s why we all vote for the party that we think will more likely create the environment we would most like to see. The wishes of the coming true! But me, what I see is a Government ironically hell-bent on creating a society that is a million miles apart from the idealistic “big society” that Lynne and her new buddies envisage. And I remain, therefore, unconvinced.

  23. Whoops, I missed something out. What I meant to say is -“The wishes of the Conservative voters are coming true!”

  24. For the Big Society to work it means that communities must have the capacity – skills, time and money – to replace government functions.

    Poorer communities are likely to struggle most and so will be vulnerable to failure – at which point they are likely to be blamed.

    Communities with higher numbers of well-off retired people may get off to a strong start but then the retirement age will rise and those people disappear.

    Other communities may also start off well as one member of a family goes off to paid employment while another adult is able to give time to the community – but this will fall by the wayside when jobs are lost.

    Communities where there are high numbers of students or a transient population will struggle from the outset as people are at a point in their lives where they don’t have a strong stake in their local area.

    There are so many holes for us to fall through…..

  25. The idea is great, the theories on social equality/inequality are very important. What is needed is putting the theory into practice. This needs a deep understanding as well as resources.

    I feel that the understanding is lacking and the resources are being cut. This puts it in a dangerous position.

  26. There is clearly a great deal of frustration here, and (as shown in the comments against earlier posts by Lynne) some real suffering – but I believe that the frustration is there in government as well, not just about the immediate situation but also about the long term problem of governing this country better. The statements from Lynne that are quoted are unlikely to be supported with the evidence that some here demand, because we are getting coded messages – I see it in other areas where government people (both Coalition MPs and those supporting civil servants who also want things done better) are talking and writing. Certainly I wish that the brutal re-assessment of the disabled could be halted (and Lynne as Equality Minister ought to be very active there), and I am also aware that a significant number of businesses large and small are experiencing that their markets have gone into suspended animation, but we have got to let the elected government use this summer to plan for that late October statement (although I have heard that some decisions will be made before then, in order to get some things moving sooner).

  27. Less than a mile from where The Archbishop of Canterbury gave ‘Two and a half cheers’ for the Big Society last night is our local community.

    It is a living example of the Big Society that for 40 years has maintained All Hallows Copperfield Street Community Garden in SE1. Unfortunately it is the Church that is trying to destroy it.

    For the third time Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, will be submitting plans to redevelop All Hallows Church and Community Garden, which they had let fall into disrepair, with private flats that will box in our estate and reduce our light and privacy.

    The proposal could also ruin and end access to our award-winning walled community garden that was created from a WW2 bombsite by local residents and maintained by us for nearly 40 years.

    Once again the Cathedral has ignored the voices of local people by refusing to consult before submitting their new plan even though we submitted an alternative proposal to help them find a solution.

    Dr Rowan’s support for local communities is undermined by Colin Slee ,who has demonstrated once again that he has no vision of society – let alone a big one!

  28. Hello Lynne, you didn’t get around to answering y question about your personal contribution to the Big Society last week, so here’s another one. What volunteering work you have done in the past seven days – July 20 – July 27 – outside of your job, for free and in the spirit of forging the Big Society?