The return of the Big Society

Are the national parties missing a growing trend that is helping to reshape British society?

As we come into the General Election, both the Labour and Conservative party are focusing their efforts on a sweeping national narrative around how best to manage the economy for the good of British society.

But are the national parties missing a growing trend that is helping to reshape British society and how it interacts with the state?

Last month, Weber Shandwick partnered with the civic crowd-funding platform Spacehive to host a round table looking at new forms of civic engagement. It was a great discussion bringing together developers, government departments, the Greater London Authority, charities and professional services firms.

One of the themes that we kept coming back to was how, in the age of austerity, local authorities were moving from more of a command and control approach to services to that of an enabler of communities to deliver them. As Chris Gourlay from Spacehive set out, there was always been huge pools of talent and creativity, particularly in urban areas and these are now starting to be tapped.

Of course, the scenario we were skirting around was very much the Big Society that was so central to the Cameron/Conservative brand in the early years of the Coalition. It is interesting that while that project was abandoned, at least in name, many people working at the community level are seeing something along the lines it described starting to take shape.

Labour has its own version – the cooperative council model – pioneered by Steve Reed MP in his days as leader of Lambeth Council, a concept he has continued to develop with his joint publication with Liz Kendall MP, Let it go.

A question that doesn’t seem to be being asked is whether Cameron was successful in setting up the Big Society after all? And if he was, why isn’t he getting the credit he deserves? Part of the answer clearly lies in the positioning Lynton Crosby has set out for Cameron and the Conservative Party going into this election, and the Big Society is clearly too fluffy for all that.

The flip side of the Big Society is the cuts that are the necessary catalyst to bring it to life. None of the main parties is really making clear the full extent of the cuts that are likely to follow the next election. But when those cuts come, we are likely to see the revival of those ‘Big Society’ principles once more – even if they are called something very different.