Big Society vs Community Politics: grounds for agreement, grounds for disagreement

David Cameron’s recent speech laying out his vision of the Big Society provides a yardstick to judge it against traditional Liberal Democrat (and before that Liberal) beliefs in community politics.

The underlying motivation for the Big Society, as expressed by Cameron, could have come from one of the many Lib Dem / Liberal pamphlets or articles about community politics:

It comes from the belief that over many decades this country has become too centralised, too bureaucratic and too top-down.

And this is not just inefficient and overly-bureaucratic but also has an insidious cultural effect, because it robs people of responsibility.

Regaining this shared sense of personal responsibility goes to the heart of my political philosophy – in fact to the heart of my whole approach to life.

The use of “responsibility” may be more traditionally Conservative vocabulary, but it compliments the community politics ideal of helping people to help themselves rather than doing everything for them.

From this starting point, Cameron laid out three policy areas.

First, decentralisation of power. A radical devolving of power not just to local government, but beyond that to neighbourhoods and communities.

Decentralisation was a Liberal Democrat demand whilst many in the Conservatives were still loving centralisation, though in our party it more often takes the form of believing in decentralising to local councils, but very little further. Cameron’s belief in going beyond councils is not one at odds however with views often expressed at Liberal Democrat conferences, even if more in fringe meetings and speeches from the floor than in expressions of the party’s official position.

Turning to provision of services, Cameron said:

The second key area is public service reform: opening up public services so that anyone can offer to provide them.

Think “free schools” and you get many Liberal Democrats saying, “Here’s where my agreement stops”. However, the party has often had a rather unusual relationship to the question of who should provide public services. The party’s general support of diversity, love of cooperatives or mutuals, belief in local provision and local accountability and suspicions of state power could naturally lead to many forms of local provision of services through means other than staff on a public sector payroll. And yet, it never really quite has on a significant scale.

Then on to Cameron’s third point:

The third part of our Big Society approach is social action people giving their time and effort to support causes that matter to them.

As with his general principle, this fits comfortably alongside the ideas behind community politics.

Overall then Cameron’s speech suggests that much of the Big Society in itself should not provide a problem for Liberal Democrats – and indeed can be welcomed as a different name for approaches the party has long been arguing for. But the party is likely to be put on the spot again and again over the second point: who does the party think should provide services? Is it all about provision by local public bodies answerable to the council, or is it about more than just public bodies and more than just councils?

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