From Sow’s Ear to Silk Purse

For Progress Online, October 2010:

The Big Society is here to stay. As Labour reconnects with the electorate, building a firm base for support through the difficult days to come, it must reassert itself as the natural party of communities – and steal the Big Society agenda.

The current concept of ‘Big Society’, like any idea formed on the back of a fag packet at the eleventh hour, lacks content, analysis and coherence. Labour’s new leader, formerly a minister with responsibility for the third sector and volunteering, must take this opportunity to give Big Society – or the Good Society – the substance it currently lacks.

If it is defined as engaging with members of communities, supporting them and enabling them collectively to improve their locality by influencing the way in which public services are provided, in a manner which is both equitable and socially just, then no one in the centre or on the left will have any problem supporting it.

From opposition, the process of turning ideas into reality is always much more challenging than when in government. Indeed, in opposition the engine for making change in this area will depend as much on Labour activists outside in the big society itself as in Westminster.

To lead the Big Society Labour requires a low cost and deliverable strategy. This must include:

    • Supporting the infrastructure of civil society, giving community groups and volunteers ever greater capacity to inform, influence or deliver local services
    • Upholding the right of people to receive care and other services tailored to their personal needs, something organised and skilled volunteers are well equipped to deliver
    • Celebrating the good practice and achievement of volunteers and their organisations, sharing solutions and learning
    • Engagement as a Party (and as 200,000 individual Party members) in communities and their organisations, especially in positions of responsibility such as trustees of civil society bodies. (A monthly plod through Minutes and Matters Arising does not count as volunteering)
    • Councillors to be more the friends of their community activists and more relaxed about the process of engagement; councils to be partners and supporters of the community sector in respect of consultation, involvement and sharing service delivery.

Even as public spending is cut, decentralisation presents opportunities as well as threats. Labour in communities must be more imaginative and outward looking then ever before, to make the sow’s ear that is the ‘Big Society’ today into the silk purse of tomorrow – and to take the credit for it.