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Big Cuts, Big Society

Here we invite CCIG members and others to reflect on and intervene in the politics of the present. Right now, we are concerned with the politics of the 'Big Cuts, Big Society' agenda.


jen79 10 October 2010, 22:09

Return of the repressed or business as usual?

So far the Big Society has been received with considerable cynicism by political commentators of the left ('Its just a smokescreen for cuts to state services') and even many of those within the Tory party ('its empty rhetoric and no one knows what it means - lets just get back to basics'). But cynicism is not enough for voluntary organisations faced with the paradox of cuts to their funding just at the point where it would seem that their role should be expanding, not only to meet intensifying needs but also to build the capacity of civic actors to participate in the ways that Blond and Cameron envisage. For many such organisations the dominant responses are anger, disbelief and dismay.

But I want to step back from both cynicism and anger to offer some thoughts on how we might understand the current political moment, not least to ask whether there is anything we should be taking seriously about the idea of the Big society and its Labour alternative.

While there are some clear continuities with New Labour, not least in NL's focus on 'active citizens', the idea of the Big Socety also marks a disjuncture in that it draws on key flaws in the New Labour project, especially in its approach to the delivery of public services. This relates to my title - the return of the repressed - in that it speaks to relationships, forms of mutualism and personal engagement that are the antithesis of the consumerism and instrumentality of Labour's approach to public service performance and delivery. Despite its emptiness and even vacuity, then, the idea may speak to repressed desires and sensibilities.

The second reason why we should take it seriously relates not to the attempted disjunctures from New Labour  but because of deep continuities in the New Labour and Coalition projects. One is the incoporation and managerialisation of voluntary and civic organisations as they become 'partners' in the delivery of services or in the development of policy responses to social needs. A second is the search for 'ordinary people' who might be mobilised to participate in community based and civic action - those not already attached to entrenched interests or existing forms of mobilisation.

Both of these represent the intensification of trends one might term 'business as usual'. And I use the term business deliberately to suggest some of the trends towards the valorisation of social enterprise, new forms of mutual and trust based organisation over the more traditional voluntary sector.

This opens up more ambiguities around the Big Society: is it to be constituted through small scale, local, civic and neighbourhood relationships? or through new forms of entrerprise, economic developments and funding initiatives (e.g. social impact bonds.) We just don't know, not least since these represent different trends on the political right: the privileging of business development on the one hand and self reliance on the other, with the idea of 'compassionate conservatism' as a weak articulating device.

But all the trends I have identified draw on and were prefigured by earlier initiatives: they are not only Cameroonian/Blondian ideas but originated in practices and innovations developed outside government, many in the voluntary sector itself, both in the UK and beyond. So what of the future? what kinds of organisations might benefit by positioning themselves to work with and develop such initiatives?  what are likely to go to the wall? and what is the role of the voluntary sector voice in shaping up, resisting and perhaps offering alternative conceptions of social and civic action that look to the future as well as the past? what other elements of the 'repressed' might be respoken and mobilised to fill the 'empty rhetoric' of the Big Society?

Outline of talk to be given by Janet Newman to the Voluntary Sector Studies Network on 1 December 2010 – comments welcome.

johnc2 17 October 2010, 18:43

It’s not fair? Word complains of overwork.

This week the word fairness demanded its retirement from British politics, complaining about exhaustion from overwork. Well, no – not really, but surely we might act on its behalf and ask for its protection as an endangered term? In the last few years, Fairness has become one of the keywords of current British politics. Both Labour and the coalition parties have turned to it as a way of appealing to publics that are mistrustful of politics and politicians. Fairness seems to appeal to collective or communal concerns about how we should live together as a society – and governments should, it appears, be promoting fairness in their actions and in how they encourage others to behave. In such terms, it is difficult to imagine who might be against fairness, except truly nasty people.

 If so, it’s difficult to see what the word is doing in the nasty and conflictual business of politics. It doesn’t distinguish in any serious way between political parties or their policies – all of which, they are keen to assure us, are about being fair. And if we never get past the headline or sound bite, we may never get to hear what being fair actually looks like: who benefits from this bit of fairness, who loses, who pays for it – and what public or social good does it do? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps we – the public – are just as committed to the empty symbolism of being fair as the politicians. Except that it usually feels as though ‘fair’ also means something specific when individuals and groups complain that something isn’t fair, whether it’s children complaining about bedtime or adults complaining about the allocation of housing or welfare benefits.

In those real circumstances, fairness rarely turns out to be about how we live together nicely but is about privileges, priorities and distinctions between us and them (Why does she get to stay up later than me? Why do all these migrants get priority over local people?). So, when I hear ‘fairness’ in everyday life it immediately makes me think about claims-making: who is making claims for what through the language of fairness? The problem for politicians who announce fairness as this universal panacea, trading on its apparent niceness, is that it immediately bumps into much more particular views, claims and calculations about what fairness should look like here and now. Fairness may be generically empty, yet is always accompanied by its particular echo: ‘But it’s NOT FAIR’.

Its easy emptiness distinguishes fairness from other political terms such as equality, equity or justice. They too have problems about definition (what sort of equality, about what things, for whom?). But they are terms that we know how to test and contest – however imperfectly. Fairness combines the empty gesture with specific complaints: it provides a vocabulary for articulating feelings of dismay, disgust and disgruntlement. Such feelings are part of politics; an underestimated but nonetheless significant part of politics. But to me fairness feels like part of the culture of complaint, rather than a culture of commonality. Politicians brandishing the term may appear to be offering a watered down (if not utterly dissolved) version of social democracy or collectivism, but fairness evokes something different : the r pouting complaint that somebody (a benign parent or authority figure?)should make it fair. Even a big society needs something more than this fantasy of fairness. At least, it requires the cultivation of common identities, collective interests and shared experiences – that are more likely to grounded in equality rather than fairness.

cb4696 20 October 2010, 14:16

Fair is Fair

Everybody’s talking about fairness, these days, as my colleague John Clarke observes. It’s been a central and recurring motif in discussions of the end of universal child benefit, the Browne review of higher education funding, and Nick Clegg’s announcement of the Pupil Premium. All this fairness talk is part of general break-out of explicitly normative political discourse in the last 6 months, or at least the surfacing of themes which have been floating around for a while – The Big Society, with it’s Burkean heritage and ‘Red Tory’ sheen of radicalism is just one example; Ian Duncan-Smith’s catholic inflected social justice agenda is another; David Willets’ account of intergenerational justice yet another, the latter two more obviously having policy relevance than Cameron’s more flaky sounding Big Society. A key question here is whether it is wise to think of these discourses as simply ‘cover’ for spending cuts, simply means of legitimating more fundamental decisions.

John worries that fairness is too airy, lacking the incisiveness of a value like equality for example. I’m not so sure. Firstly, I think fairness is a term through which intuitive values of equality and justice is ordinarily expressed – these aren’t opposed terms at all. John Rawls’ egalitarian liberalism revolves around a notion of fairness, for example (a rather opaque account admittedly). But the principle of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ also expresses an egalitarian sense of fairness. I think the intimate relationship between fairness and from abstract notions of equality or justice is worth considering more carefully as the politics of ‘the new politics’ begins to unfold, starting tomorrow with the comprehensive spending review. Last week, The Guardian’s right-wing provocateur Julian Glover managed to concoct a mean-spirited response to the ECHR’s report, How Fair is Britain?. What exercised Glover was precisely the coupling of fairness with equality in this report, leading him to argue that since fairness is a woolly idea, and since it is too easily mistaken as ‘equality’, we should do away with both notions. Glover’s self-serving argument elicited a debate , which underscored again the close relationship between these two different values.

My point is that we might do well to take seriously the different meanings of fairness, and attend to their changing deployment in public culture and in different contexts. But more than this, might usefully think of this break-out of fairness talk not so much as merely ‘legitimating’ economic decision-making, but as a form of justificatory discourse – in the sense that justificatory practices are understood by economic sociologists such as Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, and Laurent Thévenot, as crucial mediums for the coordination of social life. From their perspective, justificatory discourses need to be understood as exerting real constraints on the exercise of unfettered capitalist logics, and as indices of fields of contestation and critique to which selective responses are made. From this sort of perspective, all this fairness talk is notable precisely because it is an index of the terrain of conflict and contestation to which an emerging, half-baked political programme feels itself obliged to respond in the hope of circumventing other modes of critique. Fairness is not meaningless, and certainly not an empty signifier. It has as set of intuitive associations, which the Coalition is doing its best to both make use of and control. David Cameron talks of fairness as ‘giving people what they deserve, and what people deserve depends on how they behave’. This definition ties fairness to a notion of individual responsibility, but it articulates a broader sense of fairness having to do with desert – an idea that is easily inflected in egoistically ‘meritocratic’ ways for sure, but which is also open to re-inscription.

So fairness might be worth taking more seriously than the urge to question all this woolly moralism leads us to think it should, if only because this is one terrain in which ‘the new politics’ is about to be articulated – not just spending cuts, but the coming debate about electoral reform too. It’s not the only one, of course, and there is no good reason to restrict oneself to the terms laid down by those in formal political control of events. In this respect, too, though, it is notable that there are some funny things happening in political discourse just now. For example, the reaction to the announcement of the end of universal child benefit by right-wing columnists in The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph is interesting not least because the challenge to the narrowly ‘transactional’ view of fairness expressed by Osborne and Cameron at the Tory conference was presented through a clear statement of a principle of public value – the defence of ‘stay at home mums’ receiving child benefit irrespective of personal or household income levels was made in the name of the principle that engaging in an activity that benefitted the collective life of the community deserved reward and support. This is a gendered, nationalistic, paternalistic vision of public value, no doubt, but a vision of public value it certainly is – it is in marked contrast to the ruling principle behind the Browne review of higher education, for example, which confirms an already evident drift to thinking of the public function of Universities primarily in terms of the efficiency with which they distribute private benefits to those who pass through their doors – a trend tracked by OU colleagues in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, and theorised by Craig Calhoun. If the ‘stay at home mum’ logic was applied to higher education, the proposals for University funding would look markedly different. All of which is to suggest that one task for a critical response to ‘the new politics’ of spending cuts, austerity, re-moralisation of the poor, electoral reform, and much else is to carefully track the modes of justification presented for different decisions, for it is here that one will be able to track the genealogies of vulnerability to which this idiosyncratic political project is responding and the opportunities for opposition it is helping to generate in its wake.

Grahame Thompson 20 October 2010, 19:33

Big Questions for the Big Society

There has certainly been a major outbreak of 'fairness speak' as collegues have noted, and this was confirmed by the Chancellor's Spending Review speech to the House of Commons on Wednesday (lunch time today). However, the Big Society as outlined by Cameron in his Hugo Young lecture (10 November 2009) is not just about fairness. It involves much more: a critique of the 'overbearing state' ("the size, scope and role of government in Brtiain has reached a point where it is now inhibiting, not advancing the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality, and increasing general well-being. Indeed there is a worrying paradox that because of its effects on personal and social responsibility, the recent growth of the state has promoted not social solidarity, but selfishness and individualism"); but not simply the promotion of a 'rolling back' of the state ("I believe that in general, a simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life unbidden is wrong. Instead we need a thoughtful re-imagination of the role, as well as the size, of the state"); and it encourages various forms of mutualism ("the vibrant panapoly of civic organizations that meant communities looked out for one another; the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds"); and finally, it seeks broader civic engagement ("beyond just social entrepreneurs and community activists").

Surely anyone would agree that comming from the leader of the Conservative Party this presents a heady brew indeed: a critique of selfishness and individualism, a committment to fight poverty and inequality, the re-imagination of the state, active support for mutualisms.... and more besides.

Of course, whether this package could survive a long period of fiscal austerity is deeply questionable, independently of whatever one thinks of the seriousness of Cameron's sentiments as expressed in his speech. The speech was delivered whilst in opposition and probably before the full extent of the crisis was fully recognized. The Big Society -- or indeed any root and branch structural reform of the state and its activities -- does not sit easily with a highly fiscally constrained goverment grappling with deep cuts in public expenditures.

This situation therfore presents several alternative likey courses for the future of the provision of 'public services' which might have to compete with the Big Society idea.

The first of these would see even more of these services handed over to the private sector proper to both finance and operate; a continuation and deepening of trends set in motion by Labour governments and which have been so thoroughly analysed by Janet Newman and John Clarke. This is a temptation just too attractive to resit I suspect, so expect more public-private partnership and the like, where it will be Big Business rather than the Big Society that sets the agenda.

Then we could see the further rise of what is rather grandly termed 'Philanthro-capitalism': this involves billionaire business people using their vast wealth and expertise to take over the provision of public goods and services. This is already happening in respect education, health, water provision, and the like on a huge scale in the 'Third World' but could hit us with a vengence more close to home. I would extend this trend to included corporate charity and corporate social responsibility. The issues here are obvious; should the agenda for the provision of 'public services' just be handed over to the personal proclivities of billionaires and private companies? What are the democratic accountablity and transparency conditions associated with this?

Behind these trends, then, lies a 'Big Question' -- one which would also haunt the Big Society if it were ever to get seriously off the ground -- that of the regulatory and governance structures needed to manage the proliferation of new and older organizations involved and the widening embrace of their activities. Here would present the perfect opportunity for CCIG to tackle these issues.

Bill Jordon 23 October 2010, 08:03

Is the Big Society idea nothing but a figleaf to cover a Thatcherite agenda to butcher the welare state? In my view, it cannot be regarded in this light, even though some of its supporters might want it to become just such a programme. This is because it addresses two fatal weaknesses in the New Labour governments' reforms and policies, and points possible ways forward.

The first of these was the Blair/Brown version of society as a business (as in the dreadful 'UKplc'), and the Third Way programme for modernising the public sector in line with economic principles. New Labour thought that social and moral goals, such as equality of opportunity and social justice, could be achieved by giving individuals the right information and incentives, and restructuring the public sector through contracts and managerial controls, so as to give citizens choices between options.

The New Labour approach was adopted from 'Behavioural Economics', designing a 'choice architecture' to steer citizens towards socially desirable outcomes.Citizens were urged to be 'independent' and self-responsible; there was little attempt to engage them in a broader collective project for improving their communities or contributing to the common good.

The Big Society responds to this by insisting that civil society, associations and mutual support are central to citizenship and well-being. Both Cameron and the Conservative Party Manifesto have recommended collective action, and the involvement of every citizen in groups and associations at the local level. The claim is that the coalition government will redistribute power to individuals and communities, and that this principle underlies the bonfire of the quangos, cuts in the civil service and managerial levels in the NHS and local authority agencies, and the transfer of decision making and resources to GP practices, schools and local government.

This implies that society is not like a business, and that citizens should be actively involved in common purposes. The weakness of this approach is that our society is so unequal, and people are concentrated in communities with similar incomes, age-profiles and cultural commitments. Without a massive redistribution of resources, the Big Society programme risks consolidating this, rather than challenging it.

The second major failure of New Labour stemmed from the interactions between employment, wages, taxes and benefits. For all the claims about 'making work pay' through the minimum wage, tax credits and retraining programmes, numbers of workless households and young people outside employment and education were much the same in 2010 as in 1997. Jobs growth benfited migrant workers from Central Europe, motivated and skilled, but not qualified for most of the benefits available to UKcitizens.

Here the Big Society approach is derived from the 'Broken Britain' diagnosis of Iain Duncan Smith, and his plans for welfare reform. The coalition government argues that its benefit cuts pave the way for the universal credits which will underpin major redistribution to those doing small amonts of paid work, and a big growth in employment, about five years down the line.The claim is that the new scheme will greatly improve incentives and support, compensating for cuts in Employment Support Allowance and housing benefit.

Here again, the new approach requires the engagement of a wider population in improving the quality of their shared lives, rather than increased public sector employment. The crucial question is whether these tasks are entrusted to commercial companies, or whether resources will be devolved to organisations of active citizens, in control of their own programmes for regeneration and development.

The coalition is, as David Cameron acknowledges, attempting a long-term culture-shift. It could be lead to a reversion to greed and narrow solidarities in a polarised society; or it might just allow a return to the kinds of collective action which have been suppressed since the early 1980s.

Bill Jordan is author of "Why the Third Way Failed", published by Policy Press this month'.

Mark J Smith 2 November 2010, 03:28

For all those discussing the effects of the Big Society programme, you should find the forthcoming publication of interest, drawing on the views and experience of the voluntary sector, politics and the academy. The table of contents are as follows.

The Big Society Challenge
Community Alliance
Elizabeth Truss MP
About Keystone Publications
Note on contributors
1. Introduction; Big Society in Context - Marina Stott (Anglia Ruskin University)
2. The intellectual roots of Big Society - Mark J Smith (POLIS & CCIG Open University)
3 Social entrepreneur – the evolution of the species- Robert Ashton
4. The Big Society Bank - Belinda Bell
5. Building the Big Society - solid foundations or shifting sands? - Steve Wyler (DTA)
6 Big Society and poor places - Neil Stott (Keystone Development Trust) & Noel Longhurst (University of East Anglia)
7 Organizations and Big Society - Paul Tracey (Cambridge University)
8. Social enterprise and Big Society - Andy Brady (Anglia Ruskin University)
9. Environmental Responsibility and the Big Society – Mark J Smith (POLIS & CCIG, Open University)
10. Volunteering; what do we know? - Alex Collis (Anglia Ruskin University)
11. Local Government Members and Big Society - David Wilson (Former special adviser to Local Government Minister)
12. Housing Associations and the Big Society - Heather Petch (Hact)
15. Community and Big Society - Helen Haugh (Cambridge University)
16. Housing and Big Society - Andrew Purkis
17. The Big Society and sustainable communities - Katherine Knox (Joseph Rowntree Foundation)
18. Big Society and the devolution of power - Ben McCall (Doncaster Central Development Trust CIC)
19. From Small to Big: Housing Associations and the Big Society - Colin Wiles (Wiles Consulting)
20. Big Society and rural communities - David Wood (Rural Action East)
21 ‘Small is beautiful’: Can Big Society Advocates Learn from Experience? - Professor Anne Power
22 Big Society, social justice and the new austerity - Anna Coote (New Economics Foundation)
23. The Big Society: How it Could Work - Gabriel Chanan & Colin Miller (PACES: Public Agency and Community Empowerment Strategies
24. Money in a Big Society - Well-being and Wealth - Tim R T Jones (Allia IPS)
Plus 500 word case studies from Bassac & DTA members

Clem Henricson 17 November 2010, 10:57

Political concepts abound. The question is - how meaningful are they? The devil is in the intent and the fleshing out. The 'Big Society' is not new - remember New Labour and 'social capital' and 'communitarianism'. 'Fairness' is the property of us all; cheap at the point of expression and heavy on delivery. 'Happiness' and 'well being' indicators are one politician's aspiration for a nuanced understanding of social needs, another's diversion from the realities of inequality.

So let us, as far as we can, talk without reliance on slippery rhetoric.

The reality is that, not only is happiness likely to diminish, but we are likely to get more seriously troubled families in the wake of a rise in unemployment and depressed incomes at the bottom end of the socioeconomic ladder. Troubled families need professional, not amateur, help. The demand for family support will increase at the same time as services are being contracted, and the reduction in universal services in favor of targeting will mean that a number of troubled families will be missed; they will fall through the net.

Furthermore, if the focus is on providing targeted services to those who, on some assessment form, meet certain levels of dysfunction, then it is more likely that we will conceptualise troubled families as a highly distinctive category within the family population. This is divisive and will lead to a more fractured society - hardly 'Big', if by that we mean an inclusive society with an ethic of care.

Clem Henricson

Daniel Taghioff 15 December 2010, 04:01

You cannot capture "fairness" unless you have an adequate methodology for measuring "benefits". Education is a public good in as much as it has a preponderance of indirect benefits to society. Like being the condition of possibility for almost all modern social institutions, to take a small example.

Therefore to accept any discussion of fairness around education predicated on a private good based notion of cost-benefit is to miss a key distinction, one well-explored in the public good economics of Scandinavia.

As for the big society, as far as I am aware political participation is tied to the strength of local democracy, and the number of representatives per capita. If there are a lot of local democratic points of contact with the state, that encourages participation. I pick out this strand to point out that the big society cannot in practice do what it claims to. It is strikingly similar to World Bank and IMF proposals in developing countries to "decentralise" as an effort to promote "cost-recovery".

The shortcomings of the previous government cannot make this one walk on water: Either you invest in local democracy, or you don't, you cannot magic up social resources out of people whose resources are under pressure. This means the big society is not for the over-employed majority.

thomas aylward 23 January 2011, 22:30

to have fareness in life we all have to realise what we can give to each other. when i here a rich man talk about this i ask my self does he do anything in his life free of charge and for no other gain than to make some other persons life that little bit better. if our P.m.had been out on council estates working with kids who's best chance of making money was to do drugs and he turned the childrens life around then i think he would be able to lead a debate on fareness but he has not apart from when he wont's votes.I have done this on my own park and ended up with over 50 children and brought the local crime rate down by 80%. fareness in my eyes is muns and dads being able to do this without facing loss of money if they are going to help in this way they need the suport of goverment and industry

Clive Barnett 25 February 2011, 12:12

Here is a new paper from the New Economics Foundation, trying to provide a left-inflection and critical redemption to the Big Society concept:

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