Politicians should let the public decide what the Big Society means and allow communities to make things happen on their own terms.
Speaking at the Hay-on-Wye festival earlier this week, David Miliband didn’t just raise questions about the direction of the Labour Party under his brother’s leadership. He also touched on a much wider issue.
“We should be for the Big Society”, he said, in unequivocal terms. He went on to argue that with David Cameron’s flagship policy, the Conservatives were staking their claim to traditional Labour ground. Party positioning is second nature to any politician, but leave the politics aside for a moment, and what becomes clear is that the principles behind the posturing are broadly admirable and have more support than is frequently assumed.
Streetlife.com’s Connecting Communities Report found a significant appetite around the UK for increased community involvement with public services. Over half – 57 per cent – of those we surveyed agreed that individuals and local communities should be given more power from both local and central government, to shape decisions and policies that impact their neighbourhood. Less than one in ten said they disagreed with this idea. Similarly, almost half – 48 per cent – agreed that charities, social enterprises and community groups should be free to provide public services; again, just 12 per cent disagreed here.
Yet ask the same public what it thinks of the Big Society, and those in opposition invariably become more numerous. Miliband senior’s intervention was therefore an intriguing one – tentatively hinting that the Big Society is ultimately about helping people and communities work together to improve the areas in which they live.
Move on from the politics then, and the challenge is one of empowerment. How can people influence events in their community? The key is bringing together individuals’ time, skills, enthusiasm and local knowledge. Help people to connect, and the results are impressive. During a pilot scheme in Wandsworth, Streetlife members rallied together to fight for causes that mattered to them. In one of the more deprived areas of the borough, for example, a library threatened with closure has been saved thanks to a resident-led networking campaign to coordinate and volunteer their time.
So perhaps the politicians should step aside and allow the public to come together and decide what the Big Society means. Red, blue, yellow or green – connect with your community and you can talk about what matters to you, fight for what’s important according to your values and needs, and make things happen on your terms. Maybe that’s a Big Society.