Cameron’s “Big Society” is in democratic deficit

David Cameron’s “Big Society” is in democratic deficit. It is merely a back-door way of allowing the wealthy and educated to clean up at the expense of the poor.

Our guest writer is Sadie Smith

Saying that you are sceptical about the merits of devolving power to the people is taking a potshot at a holy cow of received political wisdom, that people are desperate to have more control over their local services. However, Cameron’s “Big Society” manifesto launch, far from striking a blow for the autonomy and choice agenda, is merely a back-door way of allowing the wealthy and educated to clean up at the expense of those of a lower social class and educational attainment.

To be fair, in theory, it all sounds so good. What is wrong, after all, with parents deciding that local schools are inadequate and starting their own? What is the problem with recognising that the state can be an inefficient provider of key services and choosing to have them administered by the voluntary sector instead? Well, there’s nothing wrong with these noble, empowering, sentiments as long as you have the people power to make them happen. The last thing any Government wants is to find that, having stormed the citadel of the Big State to many voices raised in joy, the same individuals cheering on liberation a few hours previously are moaning about having to clear up the rubble the next morning.

Cameron’s “Big Society” requires an engaged citizenry raring to take over the responsibilities of an outdated state bureaucracy. So how many people actually want to get involved in activism in their local communities? According to Cameron and the Conservatives the answer is, “Like, LOADS dude! Chuh, everyone hates politicians and community, grass roots activism is totally so Barack Obama. Facebook! Yeah!”

The actual answer, according to the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement 2009, which focused on political participation and citizenship, was “not that many, as it happens.” The independent study found that half the public do not want to be involved in decision making in their local area and over half (55 percent) do not want to be involved at a national level. Nearly half (40 percent) cite “lack of time” for not getting involved, and none of the other reasons receive a mention from more 12 percent of respondents.

The statistic that shoots a massive hole in the hull of Cameron’s manifesto on “hopey, changey stuff” is the one that deals with voting. Whilst 87 percent of those questioned thought it was “essential” or “important” to vote, only 53 percent said that they would be absolutely certain to do so. The Hansard Society comments that, “While the public has a clear view about the theory of being a good citizen – for example voting and making charitable donations – they do not actually make the leap from good intentions to positive action.”

Furthermore, the Audit found that social class was fundamental to engagement. ABs engaged more than DEs, frequently by a margin of 15 – 20 percentage points. In addition, university graduates were more likely to display higher levels of participation than their counterparts with few or no qualifications, as well as those who read a quality as opposed to popular newspaper. Unhappily for the Tory leader, this means that the saliva Cameron expended kissing Murdoch’s butt for that all-important Sun endorsement last autumn is going to deliver him very little in terms of votes and active citizens, according to the Audit’s analysis. More seriously, the demographic of – say – Sun readers without a university education and not of the AB social class are going to be the most ill-represented by Cameron’s “Big Society” proposals, in spite of the winsome page 3 stunna’s attempts to assure them otherwise.

It’s at times like this we need to ask the question: have the political class learned nothing from Foundation Hospitals? Responding to an apparent demand in the electorate to provide health care responsive to the needs of local people, the Government introduced the Foundation Hospital scheme which allows the population to vote on who sits on the hospital board according to what their healthcare priorities are. In line with the Audit’s findings, nobody really votes, much less stands for office, in these elections. Guys and St Thomas’ hospital has a potential constituency of over a million voters, but the number who actually take part can be counted in their hundreds. So hospitals now determine their priorities based on those belonging to the minority of the super-engaged and hospital staff, because most people simply do not have the time, knowledge, or technical tools that Cameron’s “Big Society” narrative assumes that everyone is in possession of.

The other downside for the Tories in the long term, and also a lesson from the Foundation Hospital debacle, is that the “Big Society” and “new localism” swiftly becomes a “postcode lottery” when an outraged mother unable to get her kid into her preferred school is interviewed by John Humphrys with the gleam of battle in his eye.

So, in an embarrassing turn of events it transpires that Dave’s “Big Society” idea is in democratic deficit before it’s even begun. Either that, or it’s merely a cunning front to empower the already powerful at the expense of those the traditional state apparatus, however imperfect, strives to protect.

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27 Responses to “Cameron’s “Big Society” is in democratic deficit”

  1. Will Straw

    Cut the BS. Sadie Smith (@smithsky1979) says Cameron's "Big Society" allows the wealthy to clean up (via @leftfootfwd)

  2. Fabienne

    RT @wdjstraw: Cut the BS. Sadie Smith (@smithsky1979) says Cameron's "Big Society" allows the wealthy to clean up ( …

  3. paulstpancras

    RT @leftfootfwd: Cameron's "Big Society" is in democratic deficit

  4. Bill Kristol-Balls

    Radical politics radically increases the amount and intensity of political participation, but it does not (and probably ought not) break through the limits imposed on republican virtue by the inevitable pluralism of commitments, the terrible shortage of time, and the day-to-day hedonism of ordinary men and women

    Michael Walzer

    Oh for a bit of hedonism 🙁

  5. JonSHarvey

    The ambition to create an engaged citizenry who take action to add to the common wealth of £££ and social capital is a noble one. However it is one thing to wish for this – but it is, as you point out, a very different and indeed difficult thing to achieve. It seems as if there is a view from the Conservative Party and other ‘Red Tories’ that when Big Government is made to withdraw, then Big Society will, of necessity, step in to fill the vacuum. I would like to see evidence for this view.

    Although, you do highlight evidence from Foundation Hospitals that there will be a democratic deficit, may I suggest that this is only part of the issue.

    I have no doubt that many people will not have bothered with Foundation hospitals since most people know – with or without higher education – that the actual room for manoeuvre between evidence based clinical practice, existing government targets, ethical concerns about equity & fairness and resource constraints is very small. In other words ‘why bother?’ when there is not much to make decisions about – really…

    But perhaps Big Society is about something more as well. Could it be, should it be, about ending the crass idea that citizens are merely ‘customers’ or ‘consumers’ of public services. I argue that the relationship between public services and the clients / users / citizens / patients / offenders / witnesses / claimants / taxpayers (etc etc etc) that they serve is far more complex than that. For too long (and I attribute much of this to Blairism too) successive governments have super imposed this one way commercial transactional model onto the public services and invented a whole monolithic & inappropriate set of structures around customers / purchasers / providers etc. (It is as if one ugly sister managed to force her foot into the glass slipper.)

    In this respect – I think there is a worthy ambition underpinning the Big Society idea. Let’s stop treating citizens as merely passive consumers of public services. Instead, let’s start treating all citizens with respect and find the bold & radical ways to engage, inform, enable, empower, educate and inspire people from all social classes to carry on or become active citizens, taking action that has been shown to make a difference (evidence based citizenship if you like, but it’s an awkward phrase)

    There is a vision here that both the left and right might be able to agree upon. Perhaps…

    However, I am also clear that the Big Society cannot be empty rhetoric or window dressing for public service cutbacks. If we have evolved into a passive society where there is this ‘dependency culture’, the way out of this will need to be developed not imposed.

  6. Thomas O'Brien

    wow! only 45% of people want to be involved in decision making? why bother with a percentage that small? They’re probably all toffs anyway.
    Thus is the logic of the elite on the left.

  7. Bill Kristol-Balls

    Can I just apologise in advance for posting this on an evidence based blog but it made me chuckle –

    David Cameron is driving to his (taxpayer subsidised) home in Witney. Along the way, his car breaks down and he calls the RAC.

    DC – Hi, my name’s David Cameron, my car’s broken down and I’d like you to send someone along to fix it.

    RAC – Hello, Mr Cameron, thanks for your call. Can I ask you first, what attempts have you made to fix the problem yourself.

    DC – None, I wouldn’t know the first thing about fixing a car.

    RAC – You haven’t even tried?

    DC – No.

    RAC – Why not?

    DC – Well I don’t have the tools for one thing.

    RAC – Your obviously feeling disempowered, why not give it a go you might surprise yourself.

    DC – Look, I know my capabilities and I know what I’m good at..

    RAC – Which is?

    DC – That’s not relevant. Anyway I don’t know the first thing about fixing a car, I want a professional to do it.

    RAC – Whoooah, that’s a bit of a radical stance if you don’t mind me saying so.

    DC – I do actually. I’ve paid my premiums every month and I expect a level of service to be there for me.

    RAC – Ah I see the problem, you’re thinking of the old, centrally controlled RAC not the new, funky, empowering one. We’ve devolved power to people like yourself. You should be pleased.

    DC – I’m not as it happens but seeing as I have to do things myself from now on, I take it this means I don’t have to pay you any more money.

    RAC – Oh no Mr Cameron, no no no no no. You don’t get it at all. You still have to pay us, we’re just not going to do as much for you in the future.

    DC – That’s not very fair.

    RAC – True, but if you wanted fairness, you should have gone with a different provider. Have a nice day.

    DC – F** f***s sake

  8. Evidence based? Really?

    I’m not sure you have your’re causation right; the reason people don’t vote is that they don’t see a positive effect at the end of it, the reason that foundation hospitals didn’t attract awareness as the project was far too diluted (not helped by brown’s opposition).

    Your argument also fails comprehensively to take into account context- post expenses politics has profoundly changed. People don’t trust politicians on even a basic level- many can’t even fill in their expense forms ‘correctly- so they fail to beleive that they can deliver reforms they need.

    There is a feeling of significant disenchantment towards governance (you can see that by higher support for independant candidates) that is quite likely to galvanise people towards active engagement.

    You can see in the example on the BBC website that when a rural community felt failed by the LA and BT as regards to broadband access they clubbed together and installed their own network.

    Politics has changed. We need change to reflect that.

  9. JonSHarvey

    Bill – that made me smile! Thank you. You make a neat point. But – how is it other countries people are required to carry car bulbs with them for example. In Germany people are required to clear the snow off the fronts of their houses. There is worthwhile advice for people on how to reduce their chances of being burgled.

    Surely, we can all make a difference and do our bit towards co-creating social outcomes. Indeed people do do it all the time anyway – we help our neighbours out, we shop for other people. In my vision of an empowered citizenry – I don’t have people carrying out highly technical jobs like medicine or policing. However there are more things that we could do – easily, well and help each other out…

    Can you write the next scene in your play….!

  10. Bill Kristol-Balls


    Glad you liked it (or tolerated it at least).

    The serious point in there is a concern for those people who don’t have the capability to say get involved in starting a school for their children.

    This isn’t to talk down those people, but to recognise some have capabilities that others do not. For example, Toby Young seems well qualified to start up a school for his kids but I’d bet he’d be fairly useless at fixing the family people carrier whereas for a mechanic, it could be the other way round.

  11. Richard Blogger

    Well, as a Foundation Trust governor I thought I should respond 🙂

    I was elected under STV with three other governors for the area. There were 23 candidates. This says that people are willing to volunteer their time and skills. That’s good, huh? The problem is that in a constituency that covers 80,000 people there are about 1500 members and half of those voted. That backs up what you mention above, few people really want top vote.

    Now I must correct you, because you made some serious errors about Foundation Trusts. Governors are not “on the board”, the board of directors are the executive directors (people with specific skills: finance director, medical director, a director for nursing, and the chief executive), and non-executive directors (people with more general skills from the community, one of which is the chair of the board). The Governors have a separate board chaired by the chair of the board of directors. FT governors do not have any day-to-day responsibility of running the hospital, nor hospital strategy FT Governors have specific and limited powers – appointing non-executive directors, appointing the chair of the trust, approving the auditors and approving the hospital strategy, are the main ones. Approving the hospital strategy, as far as I can tell, is more rubber stamping than anything else. In the best trusts (and I include my trust here) the board of directors use the governors as advisers as to what the community want and so there is a lot of communication between the two, but it is just advisory. The worst FT trusts (Mid Staffs appear to have been in this category) treat the governors as a necessary evil, don’t consult them, and keep them in the dark.

    I don’t think that you can use Foundation Trust hospitals in your argument above.

    Let me point you to something interesting. Yesterday, Andrew Lansley said that he would allow co-ops of doctors to take over NHS services. What’s so special about this? Well my FT hospital is under threat from Circle Healthcare. This is a private health company and a few years back they wanted to build a hospital in our area. The Chief Executive of our NHS FT hospital objected because he said that if Circle were awarded NHS contracts (under the *current* rules) it would threaten the financial viability of the NHS hospital. Circle agreed not to bid for NHS work, the Chief Exec withdrew his objection and planning permission was given. Circle have yet to build the hospital.

    Who are Circle Healthcare? They are a co-op of NHS doctors who also do private work: exactly what Lansley was describing. In fact, I think Lansley was referring specifically to them because they are the “acceptable” face of private healthcare.

    If the Tories are elected, Circle will build their hospital and they will then be given services from my hospital (Lansley has promised this, make no mistake, this is not a competitive bidding process, it is handing private healthcare the contracts on a plate) and then my hospital’s financial viability will be threatened.

    Do you now see why I am so scared about a Cameron victory?

  12. Andy Sutherland

    Sadie Smith (@smithsky1979) is back. She says Cameron's "Big Society" allows the wealthy to clean up (via @leftfootfwd)

  13. Richard Blogger


    I am afraid Cameron’s invitation is nothing about you or me. It is about private service providers.

    Think about it. If I think that the social services in my area is badly run can I go to my local council and say “I am running social services now”? No.

    Even if I got together ten of my neighbours to volunteer as a managerial committee would the local council accept us as the new management? No.

    Even if I get several thousand people to sign a petition demanding that I am made head of social services would I be appointed? No. Not even if I had 30 years of experience and a list of letters after my name from the most prestigious universities, I still could not take over that department.

    But if I have a company that provides social services at a cut price (by paying low wages and providing “economy class” services) I would have to fight off the “easy councils” who would want to wipe their hands of the poisoned chalice that is social services.

    Cameron’s Big Society is nothing about you or me, it is all about privatisation, and it is about time Cameron admitted that is the case.

  14. JonSHarvey

    @Richard – perhaps you are right… but maybe we have to finesse the strategy so that it does become to be about you and me and lots of other people?

  15. Richard Blogger


    “maybe we have to finesse the strategy”

    I would like to see the FT idea developed, since, as mentioned above, it really is limited and for FT governors to have any influence it needs the cooperation of the hospital board. The FT model is a good starting point because it is starting from the right direction

    The problem with Cameron’s Big Society is that it is starting from the wrong direction. The fact is, Cameron just wants to privatise NHS services piecemeal. That is his starting point. You cannot refine that model.

    By the way, the private sector is not more efficient than the NHS (Lansley keeps spreading the lie that it is), so private sector solutions are not a permanent solution for NHS services. I am in favour of the private sector being used to provide temporary extra capacity to cut waiting lists, while the NHS provider increases its capacity. But it is not cost-effective to use them as a permanent solution.

  16. Mr. Sensible

    This is a representative democracy; we elect people to provide our services for us.

    I think Cameron’s just looking for somewhere to hide if services get cut.

    ‘It wasn’t my fault, it was the peoples’ fault.’

  17. Paul Evans

    Great post: Cameron’s “Big Society” idea and the democratic deficit at the heart of it all.

  18. Tim Ireland

    RT @Paul0Evans1: Great post: Cameron’s “Big Society” idea and the democratic deficit at the heart of it all.

  19. Paul Evans

    Noticed this: Cameron’s “Big Society” is in democratic deficit

  20. PICamp

    Saw this: Cameron’s “Big Society” is in democratic deficit

  21. Chester Tweet

    RT @Paul0Evans1: Great post: Cameron’s “Big Society” idea and the democratic deficit at the heart of it all.

  22. Anon E Mouse

    You’ve all missed Cameron’s point. It comes down to trust really and attempting to shrink the government. It’s a principal he’s trying to establish and it’s going to resonate big time at the polls.

    Do you trust your local council to perform the services competitively? If not sack the official responsible. Example: the idiot in the council who fined a guy £80 for overfilling a recycling bin. No one knows who he is but he needs sacking.

    Same with the idiot who renamed Speed Cameras as Safety Cameras – sack him.

    Pretty soon the stupid councillors and officials might start to accept they are our servants and not have a feeling on entitlement as they clearly currently do. MP’s stealing our money and offering to pay it back makes theft OK does it?

    Once a few people have been sacked and others realise they serve us things will change.

    If we continue with the current situation you’ll end up with arrogant Labour MP’s refusing to take the stand in a courtroom (why was that allowed?) to answer charges yet feeling they have the right to take our money to pay for the case.

    I will never understand why the left think it’s all right to govern a country in such an incompetent manner and still continue to offer the same thing without change.

    Iraq War or ID cards anyone?

  23. Tim Worstall

    “that when Big Government is made to withdraw, then Big Society will, of necessity, step in to fill the vacuum. I would like to see evidence for this view.”

    But that’s not the point at all. If people don’t step up to volunteer then obviously they don’t think the thing being done is worth the effort of volunteering to do it. And if people don’t think something is worth the cost of doing it then that thing shouldn’t be done.

    Which means that by shifting it from Big Government to Big Society we’ll actually find out what it is that people think is worth being done. And my hunch is that there’ll be an awful lot of things which people decide just aren’t worth the candle.


  24. Andy Williamson

    @smithsky1979 uses @HansardSociety Audit data effectively to challenge Tory 'big society' argument #ge2010

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