What does UK Prime Minister Cameron's 'Big Society(external link)' mean in practice?
On the left it is argued that the Big Society is simply a smokescreen for cuts in the public sector in general and local government in particular. on the right the Red Tory's like Philip Blond - director of new Think Tank Respublica are arguing not just that the state is too large, but that community organisations can and want to do more. Governments across Europe are looking on with interest hoping that the key to deficit reduction lies in shrinking the state and enlarging society at the same time - a new form of alchemy. The Cameroons are combining the Big Society with an approach to localism through a new Localism Bill which while appearing to be about devolution gives and takes away from local government at the same time. There are important new rights to local communities and some powers will be passed down to neighbourhoods, although whether planning powers should be operated at this micro level remains to be seen. Other changes, including the wholesale withdrawal of state schools from local government control as more are converted into academies is reducing the power of the local state, and increasing the role of business as 'sponsors' of state provided education. A trend started under Labour for inner city secondary schools which is now being extended to primary education and the suburbs.
First impressions on the Big Society from the UK don't look good. Voluntary librairies only seem to work in leafy Surrey. Community Organising, much in vogue since closet community organiser Obama came out as President, is encouraged but only in its mild post Alinsky form, where it is more aimed at mobilising community resources not rocking the boat. Meanwhile the traditional Third Sector is beginning to howl as the realities of cuts in local government are passed straight on to them, either through loss of grants or loss of contracts to deliver services.
A string of initiatives for the Big Society are rolling out, many of them previous Labour initiatives such as the Big Society Bank, Big Society Bank which uses dormant bank accounts to finance investment in social enterprises at market rates. Not surprisingly former labour supporters such as Ronald Cohen - former chair of venture capital firm Apax Partners and founder of Bridges Community Ventures are in the driving seat - once again as Chairman. Their first set of pilot awards have gone to the usual suspects as well - the great and the good from the social enterprise sector.
Labour has not managed to come up with a better vision of what society might look like. They have floated the concept of the 'Good Society' but it has failed to gain the traction that the government driven big version has achieved.
Watch this space for further debates on the Big Society - and look out it could be coming to your country!

Peter Ramsden