How did the Co-op became the Big Society?

I recently attended a key note speech made by Phillip blond to the Voluntary and Community sector concerning the ‘big Society’. Phillip blond has advocated a renewal of british life because of the failures of the great political traditions (Conservatives, Liberals and Labour). If there is any real value in blond’s and Cameron’s assertion of the ‘big Society’ we need to understand the debate.

The ‘big Society’ is the flagship policy of the Conservative Party and forms part of the legislative programme. The aim is “to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will ‘take power away from politicians and give it to people’.” Apart from enabling entrapauneurs it also seeks to:

  1. Give communities more powers
  2. Encourage people to take an active role in their communities
  3. Transfer power from central to local government
  4. Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises
  5. Publish government data.

The ‘big Society’ idea has been accused as being Vague and lacking detail
– it’s more of a framework or a ‘vision’ of how things could be in the future. The government expects voluntary and community groups, charities, social enterprises and citizens to ‘fill in some of the detail’ and shape it in their own ways. What we’re not being given is a complete policy with everything worked out and planned. Similar to the Administrations Connecting People and Connecting Places (CP2) Policy which has been portrayed as an evolving policy intending to improve service delivery through a form of localism. The alternative view is that the Tories do not  know what they are doing and are relying on society to provide the answers..

The ambition of the ‘big Society’ idea is to change the relationship between citizens, the voluntary and community sector and the state. It involves the radical transformation of public services – giving local people and not-for-profit organisations the opportunity to take over the running of public services – and giving more control to citizens over what happens in their area. One of the complaints I have about CP2 is that it has delivered very little through example but has aspiration. Aspirations do not make changes but actions do. The example of action is believed by the community.

The government wants to see more people involved in local community action and has said its aim is to have neighbourhood groups in every community, and for every adult to be involved in a neighbourhood group. It’s also about devolving power from central government to local government and giving local authorities more control over decision-making in their areas. It is funny as I reflect on the resignation of Councillor Stephanie Exell that this current Tory Adminstration does not appear to be even ready to allow one of its own members to advocate a policy that differs from its political masters. How will they handle a different take on things advocated by a local community?

Some say the ‘big Society’ is just a ploy to cover up spending cuts while others say it is not connected. So is it just one big coincidence it has been launched at the time of proposed devastating cuts? Devolving power and assets to the people at a time of no real financial support may be regarded as just a transfer of burden.

Socially active citizens have always been around but the state has sometimes chosen not to listen (such as the protests against the invasion of Iraq). The state is willing to be accountable on its terms so how are empowered citizens going to hold the state or local councils to account on things they have shown they do not want to be accountable for?

The government wants to see community groups being set up everywhere, supported by ‘community organisers’. They will train 5,000 of these community organisers to help citizens’ organise themselves and make their communities better places to live, work and play. The Joseph Rowntree trust found only 5% of citizens want to get involved in Voluntary work and by tradition there are only another 5% ready to take over when they retire.

The government wants to create opportunities for frontline workers to set up cooperatives to run public services (note this is not the co-op), charities and social enterprises. A new ‘right to bid’ will allow local people to bid and take over the running of any local public service that they feel could be run better under community control.

No doubt there will be those who see this as an an opportunity in much the same way as when shares for nationalised companies were sold to anyone interested. However over time the shares went back to traditional share holders. Also one of the big failings of the theory of the ‘big Society’ is it misses out those who exploit others. People are seen as resources that can be exploited to suit an ends in much in the same way the Tories may be exploiting the voluntary sector to cover for reduced services. There are only a few people who see it as their social responsibility to clear up behind a dog that has ‘pood’ on grass in a park. Only a few will want to clear up behind someone who has fly-tipped. Also there is a tolerance level when society will give up because the state has shown it does not really care about a situation or problem.

It is true that people do want a say about how their services are run (see the Adver letters, Talkswindon and complaints made about the council). The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said there had been 700 expressions of interest from people keen to set up new ‘free schools’, but it turns out only 62 applications have been submitted and even fewer people are queuing up to volunteer to empty rubbish bins!

The government is going to use money that is sitting dormant in banks (money no one has claimed to own for a number of years) to support the ‘big Society’ programme. The previous Labour government introduced the legislation to do this and was planning a ‘Social Investment Wholesale bank’ to provide investment to social enterprises and charities to develop the social businesses. The big Society bank will do a similar thing, though it may support a wider range of activity than just loans for community enterprise. The bank is planned to open for business in April 2011, with assets of between £60m-£100m to start with. There is already a Charity bank doing similar activity which has already supported over 730 organisations with loans worth £110 million.

There is no new money, things are tight and trying to get more for less still requires an investment. The government does want to see a significant increase in voluntary action which does not need to be paid directly by government. They also want to see what public money there is directed to where people want to see it go – so charities, social enterprises and cooperatives that want to take over public services will have the opportunity to do so and to receive the contract funding that accompanies this.

Whilst the ‘big Society’ Network (a proactive organisation based on the idea and aims of the ‘big Society’) may propogate the values of the ‘big Society’ its very close links with the government are grounds for suspicion based on its close political allegiance.

The proposed cuts mean there will be less public sector staff to do things and if people want things to continue alternative ways will need to be found to keep things going. This hardly provides for a sustainable future of traditional services deprived of state commitment. Reliance on finding a volunteer or charity interested in taking over from a shifted reponsibility could simply be a way of shifting to a demand led provision culture. Things of very real value could be lost because of the way they are or not supported. No matter how valuble the service is to individuals if no one steps forward and the numbers do not satisfy state provision requirements thingswill be managed into closure. Libraries are a good example of this. Whilst volunteers could be used to help keep them open this is not a guarentee to raise demand no matter how valued Libraries are.

blond summarised his views on the failures of the political traditions as follows:

Labour -advocate state control, this control leads to suspicion of motives by those who work independently of the state. This suspicion is divisive and disconnects people. Labour policy is charged as being responsible for the breakdown of relationships across society. State benefits limit aspiration (a fault also forwarded by beveridge). The benefits trap is also a personal development and responsibility trap. It takes away personal ownership of situations and hands it to the state. Someone in the audience pointed out the Scandinavian models are successful. Phillip pointed out it is how the state model emerges which defines the type of state. He said Scandinavia was already civil when their state sharing developed whereas british and other states emerge from crisis and adversarial activity working against other types of cultures.

Conservatives “ advocate systems that are rigged to ensure the market place makes the rich richer. The rich monopolise and further the institutions that monopolise; stopping the flow of talent and alternatives. He gave the example of Capita being good at contract applications and these applications being so difficult to complete satisfactorily only those good at contract applications get the contracts. Even though the applicant may not be good at providing the services required in the contract. This effectively eradicates competition. He saw their policies as one of regulation barriers and debt servitude. Capitalism has a vested interest in seeking those who serve capitalism. The Conservative state is allied to this vested interest.

Liberals “advocate a state dominated by the individual except this thinking does not resolve high levels of inequality. A state can not function with unequal individuals; equality has to be addressed before the state can function fairly.

Phillip blond wants to see the restrictive old political values destroyed, he pointed out they are not written in nature but in our values and how we behave with each other. Through our relationships we can break up the monopolies which keep us in a cycle of political and social behaviour.


According to blond we need to build a free association of common interests based on civil behaviour. Anything that matters which is of common interest should lead to an association of people irrespective of politics.

People have to free themselves off from the reliance on the state through reskilling

Common interest groups need to form such as those who suffer from ill health and they should be enabled to get their demands resolved

Motivated social enterprises need to develop rather than traditional owned companies (employee owned enterprises earn 10% more on the FTSE)

There has to be a reconnection across the social and economic sectors through association so that all benefits can be delivered

Social enterprises of common interest have a momentum caused by the interest. They need to be enabled through facilitation.

Hubs of associated working people will provide new ways of working.

Social enterprises have to consider the affect on others outside of the enterprise

The State needs to become one of civil connection of respectful association

Like minded people should overcome the obstacles of top down institutions through persuasive argument.


Volunteers were discussed however the theme was one of civil alliance (is this the Co-op by another name?). He gave ebay as an example of a social enterprise of civil behaviour.

(This article is based on the summation of the ‘big Society’ by the New Economics Foundation written by Anna Coote, Head of Social Policy)

Cllr bob Wright.