The Big Society is still afloat

My recent Progress article (3 January 2013) responds to others who have said that everything about Big Society is either dead or should be resisted. I disagree with both! Here it is:

Tom Levitt responds to Paul Richards’  “The ‘big society’ lies at the bottom of the ocean”


Gloating over the alleged demise of the Big Society – whether policy, philosophy or project – is pointless. It takes us nowhere. The idea that the Left’s traditional service model, delivery direct from Whitehall or through local authority agents, producer-led, ‘we know best’ services, can meet all the critical needs of people at the fringe of society is simply wrong. Historic Labour practices have often accidentally abandoned many of the most vulnerable of our citizens.

We will continue to neglect those people if we do not learn.‘The excluded’ are found amongst those who are housebound or disabled, the poorest, people with mental health problems, ghettoised minority communities (including rural) and those choosing to live in the informal economy.

Let’s pose a few questions:

Why did Labour prioritise tackling social exclusion? We were right to, but did we succeed?

Why and how did Labour commit itself to the personalisation of care and support services? Did we complete the task?

What was Labour’s ambitious but overdue and under-committed Total Place approach if not ‘localism’?

And why did Labour invest in a step-change in relations with charities and the voluntary sector? What was that change if not an acknowledgement, by any but the most pedantic definition, that a big society exists (and has existed for a lot longer than this Coalition)?

Please let us stop wasting time debating whether ‘Big Society’ is the right name for community empowerment, the focus of so much recent polemic on the left.

Paul Richards’ analysis of the Big Society makes no mention of the organised voluntary sector; this is in tune with a recent TUC / Fabian survey which asked people if they preferred to receive services from the state or the private sector, a loaded question and an unreal choice. Charities can bring cost effective diversity, localisation and personalisation to front line delivery. Many have existed for a century or more, not undermining public services but complementing them – providing added value and greater reach than bureaucratic, centrally-provided support. The best commissioning officers get to know their voluntary sector and generate genuinely better services. Equating this to the new and amateur world of food bank providers engaged in crisis management is unworthy of Progress!

Some people have left government employment to follow their passion in the voluntary sector because it gives them more freedom to be effective. Others leave the public sector for a similar job in business because it pays better. Groups of public employees have been ‘floating off’ services from the public sector and selling them back for more than a decade – achieving more personal and client fulfilment that way.

The era of ‘public sector good, others bad’ has to end – for the sake of its beneficiaries. A public sector which seeks partnerships with others, which coordinates as well as provides, which is genuinely committed to inclusion, personalisation, localism and long termism and to building the strength of communities, especially the more deprived, is one that will maximise benefit to the most needy. Without partners in wider society, Big or otherwise, our politicians will continue to fail.


Tom Levitt is a former Labour MP and author of ‘Partners for Good: Business, Government and the Third Sector’. He tweets as @sector4focus