Big Society, Good society, Our Society?

There is a battle going on for society. Do we want the coalition’s Big Society or Labour’s response, the Good Society? Is there any difference? We can probably all agree that it would be nice if we were all a bit more connected, less isolated and more willing and creative when it comes to helping those around us.

Our members have been doing that for a long time, and many of them wouldn’t identify with much of the talk and theorising around the Big Society. One problem with Big Society is that it is a politicians’ initiative trying to pretend it’s grassroots and neutral. The Big Society Network looks corporate and anonymous and doesn’t appear to be engaged with much of the existing charity sector. Some Big Society advocates can give the impression that they believe existing charities are part of the problem, which ignores the massive contribution of people who should be their natural allies.

We need to be able to take advantage of the opportunities of the current government’s agenda, which include a genuine wish to cut red tape and to put power in the hands of local groups. But I don’t see choice and control for disabled and older people being created in an entirely free market. And we are always going to be uneasy about signing up to an agenda which contains a party political point at its heart: the Big Society slogan is “Big Society, not big government”. You may or may not agree with that, but there’s no disguising that it is political (particularly at a time when smaller government is associated with large cuts in services), nor that it is the kind of slogan that was thought up by political thinkers rather than grassroots activitists. I’ve never heard anyone working in a micro-enteprise say, “if only government was smaller, all of our problems would be solved”. Our experience in working with micro-enterprises is that we need government to step back in some places, but do things differently in others. Government funding is not the be all and end all and can even have negative effects on good work, but not many enterprises can survive without any public money or support at all. 

So it is good to see a new blog called Our Society: “Because it’s still our society whatever the politicians call it”. As far as I can see, it’s not party political. It accepts that there is some sense in the Big Society agenda but questions the appropriation of community and grassroots work by government. It looks like the kind of politically neutral debate we need, if we are to avoid the potentially helpful ideas within Big Society thinking getting lost in pitched battles about cuts.

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