On Monday, David Cameron relaunched the ‘big society’ for the fourth time. ‘Creating a country which feels like a community, where our relationships are better and the glue that binds people together is stronger,’ he said ‘…are the things I’m most passionate about in public life’.
Bold rhetoric was not, however, matched with comparable action. The Volunteering White Paper, with which his speech was time to coincide, announced: a £10 million Social Action Fund (which sounds rather like a reannouncement of February’s ‘Big Society Bank‘); a variety of specific grants to organisations that promote volunteering (which certainly don’t offset cuts in voluntary sector funding elsewhere); support for the Spice programme that will offer small vouchers or other rewards for volunteers; and a promise that ministers themselves will lead by example, releasing government office space for volunteering events and offering to take part in a one day volunteering challenge themselves. Today, the resignation of ‘big society tsar’ Lord Wei compounded the sense that the Big Society is faltering.
Unsurprisingly, the left is taking advantage with some classic ‘big society’ bashing. Why not, when this nebulous concept – which embraces goals as diverse as smaller government, more choice for citizens over the public services they use, and increased volunteering – is struggling to get traction with voters? 78 per cent of voters don’t even know what the ‘big society’ is, according to a recent poll. And those that do appear to often share the Labour party line that, as Ed Miliband put it in his speech to the Fabian Society in January ‘The ‘big society’ is…. a recipe for abandonment’. According to a poll published in The Independent in February, a mere 21 per cent of people disagree with his view that ‘The government’s ‘big society’ is merely a cover for spending cuts.’
Good news for Labour apparently. So it’s unsurprising that shadow cabinet minister Tessa Jowell continued the attack after Monday’s announcement: ‘Under the indiscriminate impact of accelerated cuts the essential elements of community life are slowly being starved of sustenance. What we lose in the next two years may become impossible to rebuild in 10.’ Here are echoes of Miliband’s critique in The Independent on Sunday in February: ‘no one can volunteer at a library or a Sure Start centre if it’s being closed down. And nor can this Conservative-led government build a ‘big society’ while simultaneously undermining its foundations with billions of pounds worth of cuts to the voluntary sector.’ Cameron, the argument goes is destroying the foundation-stones of social activism and the ‘good society’, as Miliband prefers to call it, will only flourish if it is supported by a strong state.
The ‘big society’ in practice
This might seem like a good hatchet job of a faltering political idea. But a few hours in a classroom at Tower Bridge Primary School, South London, convinces that the idea that civic action depends on government support is both spurious and dangerous. Nine mothers sit in a semi-circle talking excitedly about the trials and tribulations of parenting. They’re here because they want to be the best mothers they possibly can and because of a non-profit programme, Parent Gym. This is the seventh of nine two-hour ‘work-outs’ in Parent Gym’s nine-week parenting course for mothers of primary-school-age children. An evaluation of the programme’s impact in 22 deprived area schools in London and Belfast suggests that in three months time, these mothers will score 83 per cent higher on standard parenting assessment tests and their children’s conduct problems (assessed by teachers and parents) will have fallen by 25 per cent.
Labour must recognise that such results owe little to government. Schools provide the empty classroom in which parents meet but Parent Gym itself is wholly funded by the private sector consulting company Mind Gym. And trainers are either paid professionals or, increasingly, volunteers with relevant skills and experience.
The programme’s effectiveness may actually be increased by the fact it is not part of the public sector. For example, Parent Gym targets parents who most need support, using a combination of rationing and incentives that might be resisted by politicians. Programmes are only provided for parents of children living in the poorest areas and participants are offered small rewards, such £10 shopping vouchers, for attending initial sessions.
Being distanced from government may also help Parent Gym to ensure that parents don’t feel labelled as ‘bad parents’ for attending sessions. Most mothers attending the programme believe their parenting skills are ‘below average’ but sessions are rightly viewed as signalling how much they care about their children, not how much they need help. Inventive course design elements that might not be permitted in public sector organisations further minimise stigma. For example, each session is supported by a glossy magazine, Parent Gym. It’s free and can’t be found in the shops but the front cover has a £2.99 price-tag and the subtitle reads ‘For Parents Who Care’.
Even the skills and attitudes of Parent Gym’s trainers may benefit from the programme’s private sector roots. Would an existing public sector workforce (for example, teachers or health workers) be as capable of providing non-judgemental, socially sensitive training? And could the public sector impose a recruitment requirement that trainers have children of their own?
Possibly. And it might even be possible for government to replicate other successful elements of Parent Gym’s approach. Certainly, government could at least pay Parent Gym or other charities to guarantee that such services are available for mothers across Britain.
Yes, it could. But it seems patently clear that this is exactly the kind of voluntary civic action that should be allowed to flourish without government interference. First, Parent Gym is demonstrating that the non-profit sector might be able to reach most of the country’s most needy parents without public money. As the Parent Gym’s founder, Octavius Black, points out ‘we think we can be in all of London’s primary schools that are in the bottom 30 per cent of the IDAC index [Income Deprivation Affecting Children] by the end of 2011. From there, let’s see – but national coverage is not out of the question’. Second, this work is important but there remain more urgent expenditure priorities for government, both in core public services and within the field of early years parenting support. As Frank Field notes, ‘foundation years’ support for the under fives is even more vital than support once children reach primary school – and current provision in this area is clearly inadequate, with Sure Start centre closures and funding cuts not helping matters. Third, non-government initiatives add something different to society – and are rewarding for those involved in them as well as those receiving extra help.
A new response
These are the policy reasons for Labour to support organisations such as Parent Gym, rather than supplanting them or letting government claim credit for efforts. But there are also political reasons for Labour to retreat swiftly from the idea that the state is the main enabler of effective collective action. Most importantly, understating the independent contributions of citizens and non-government organisations pigeon-holes Labour as the party of big government and public sector workers. This is not a good place to be, not least because it undermines Ed Miliband’s attempts to present Labour as the party of unity and the Conservatives as a party of division.
While Labour must continue its defence of public services, the party’s leadership must also develop a clear narrative about where the state should step back. If they don’t, voters will be more inclined to believe Conservative allegations that Labour are fiscally irresponsible and committed to big government as an end itself. Vocal support of voluntary sector programmes that don’t receive public money should help ease such concerns. And recognising the difficulties that were created by Labour’s willingness to prop up charities with government grants might not do any harm either. Voluntarism should certainly not be allowed to become a Conservative domain – particularly when so much volunteering, as well as political activism, is carried out by Labour voters.
As Parent Gym expands, it needs to recruit and train skilled volunteers who are capable of facilitating parenting sessions in a socially sensitive and effective way. Such work should be core territory for Labour party supporters – and voluntary sector organisations should not be looked down on as a poor man’s alternative to ‘proper’ public services.
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