David Cameron's big society constitutes the new centre ground of British politics. That's the unmistakable conclusion of the last week. Many in Labour now realise they must move on from simplistic eulogies to the state. Tessa Jowell and Jon Cruddas have both been arguing that Labour should take the "big society" seriously and Ed Miliband in his leader's speech at conference moved on to the new civic centre ground by claiming that the big society was Labour's true legacy, wresting it back from the coalition through rebranding it the "good society".
This is welcome and true, the new centre ground is civic and social but the Tories got there first, and this is an advantage they must not forgo. Unfortunately, the "big society" seems secondary to the Treasury driven austerity agenda. Civil society is the new centre-ground of British politics and it is the only alternative to a repetition of a past none of us want to revist.
The failed left/right orthodoxies of the 1980s bequeathed us a broken society and economy. Both the market-driven right and the statist left conspired in concentrating wealth and abandoning a balanced economy. They both allowed the state, under free-market guise, to sanction monopoly dominance of our economy. The rise of vested interest and the concentration of economic power in the city created an economy based on asset bubbles and debt leverage.
At its best, the "big society" is the answer to most of these ills. It is about breaking up the concentration of power in the state and in the economy – it is a distribution and dispersal of capital and capacity throughout our society, so as to create multiple centres of wealth, innovation and ownership. For the public sector – it is about addressing state failure via a revival of our civil society through a radical decentralisation of budgets and power to our localities and communities. Opening up the state to genuine economic participation and co-operative endeavour by citizens through charities, social enterprises and civic groups can create new trust platforms, designing out the audit and compliance bureaucracies that cripple our public services.
Take the Sandwell Community Caring Trust, spun out as a residential care charity from the local authority in 1997. According to the Social Enterprise Coalition administration costs have fallen from 22% of turnover in 1997 to less than 6% today. Staff sickness levels fell from 22 days a year in 1997 to 0.3 days in 2007, turnover spent directly on frontline care up from 62 % in 1997 to more than 82% in 2006. A mutualised approach improved performance and pay. In 2006 residential care for the elderly cost the local authority £657 per person per week, the trust has reduced this cost to £328 per person per week, and residents are happier – this really is more for less.
The "big society" can also address market failure – it can and should begin with local pubs, shops or post offices, the government is encouraging community right to buy, making saving what matters a financial possibility. Co-ownership is becoming central to the coalition and with mass mutualisation being enacted for the post office, the extension of this to private sector is now becoming thinkable and desirable. Rebuilding society through economic equity is how social capital and real capital converge and create the world we want.
Elsewhere in the world societies from Japan to Italy realise they cannot afford to deliver welfare in the old way and are creating their own versions of big society. Everywhere we see the transition to new civic and social associations which the internet and emergent technologies offer. But the Treasury shows little sign of grasping the transformative possibilities of the "big society", it appears to be cutting without thinking how it could run austerity alongside the rebasing and renewal that the "big society" offers. The cuts could and should provide the opportunity for a new civic approach to the state. If they don't and we simply have a smaller version of what we have now, the coalition will have lost its opportunity on the "big society", leaving it for Labour and Ed Miliband to grasp.
originally appeared in The Guardian, 3 October 2010.