Whilst most of you were out last night gazing into your lover’s eyes over a candle-lit pasta dish, I found myself attending a Big Society debate in the Grand Committee Room of the House of Commons. I have to admit, I almost didn’t bother. The last thing I wanted to do having spent all day at conferences and meetings was to sit for an hour and a half on Valentine’s Day listening to Tessa Jowell critique a Conservative Policy that I didn’t really understand or care for.
But I went – and in the end, I was glad I did. Because it was last night that the Big Society penny finally dropped. In Francis Maude, I heard – for the first time – a Cabinet minister coherently and consistently express what is a political vision; a vision which has by-and-large been poorly communicated and misunderstood.
As Mr Maude explained, its guiding principle is that a centralised, bureaucratic state doesn’t deliver the best, most efficient public services – and as such, is unable to significantly improve outcomes for its citizens. Individuals and communities, if given more significant powers, are better placed to run their own lives. With this in mind, the coalition’s social policies are wedded to three key concepts which most conservatives will wholeheartedly support:
- A commitment to localism
- A recognition of the importance of civil society
- Fundamental opening up of public service provision
When seen through these three concepts, the coalition’s policies are consistent towards the devolvement of power closer to individuals and communities. Michael Gove’s free schools, GP commissioning, the Big Society Bank, removal of red-tape for charities, Ken Clarke’s payment-by-results policy to cut re-offending, and Iain Duncan Smith’s universal credit system are all attempts to empower individuals to have more control of their own destinies whilst giving the third sector greater scope to involve themselves with public life. As Janet Daley has blogged today, it is a sensible vision which we should all support. And the policies above are already coming into being. Rather than dying, the Big Society project is well underway and expanding in importance.
The true potential success of the vision can be seen by Labour’s willingness to jump on the bandwagon. Tessa Jowell pretty much repeated what Francis Maude had said. The key question for the government is therefore: if the vision is so in tune with conservative principles, consensual and has improved social outcomes at heart, why are they finding it so difficult to sell to the public and even some parts of the Conservative Party?
A view often expressed on the news is that people think it is a ‘cover for cuts’. This is clearly absurd given the coalition’s apparent willingness to express their fiscal tightening as some sort of ‘holocaust’ of public services. More likely is a misconception that government cuts will mean less money flowing to charities. In reality, 75% of charities do not rely on one penny of government support. And of those which do, some receive direct government grants, whilst others receive payment for the provision of services. Clearly, fiscal tightening will lead to a reduction in the extent of direct grants – but one of the main aims of the Big Society is that opportunities for public service provision will be extended more widely to third-sector institutions in future.
The cuts rhetoric rings pretty hollow when articulated by the by the Labour party, and I don’t think their story in attacking the Big Society is what has proved harmful to public perception. The vision suffers more from both the trivial name and a misunderstanding that is all about civil society . Coupled with unnecessary emphasis on volunteering, the name has suggested that the Conservatives are trying to claim ownership for something that has been going on for years.
This is purely a communications miscalculation. From now on Maude, Cameron and co need to express the vision using the three strands outlined above – providing examples from their own policies.
With regards to the problem of getting more vocal support from conservatives, the issue is simpler. Whilst most of us are sympathetic, many see the social project as a sideshow to what should be the main event – developing policies to enhance economic growth. Just yesterday a well-known journalist told a room full of conservative thinking business people that there were not enough government ministers who had an active interest in economics. In other words, it’s not that they do not think the idea is a good one, it’s just that they feel the country is facing more pressing concerns.
When thought about more carefully, growth and the Big Society are not mutually exclusive. A change in attitude will be useful in attempting to cut the budget deficit, and the social vision might just enhance, rather than hinder, the case for a rebalancing to the private sector. And whilst I still think placing the policies under the banner ‘Big Society’ has been foolish, if Mr Maude can continue to display the appetite and intellectual argument for the vision as consistently as last night, then I think many more conservatives will start beating the Big Society drum.