Nine signposts towards Our Society

Posted on December 12, 2010 by

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Yesterday evening I was at a community centre in Cheetham Hill, north Manchester, taking part in an event on the Big Society and equality. It can be quite difficult at such gatherings to offer a constructive critique of the Big Society idea – you are speaking to people who may be about to lose their jobs or whose organisations are struggling with the withdrawal of support, so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of anger and cynicism.

It’s difficult, too, to think about constructing the future while the house seems to be falling down around your ears. We must try, though, and I think there’s a remarkable willingness to do so. Whatever else you might say about Big Society, it’s got people debating the kind of communities and government they want with an energy that hasn’t been evident for many years.

I was asked to say a bit at the end about the Big Society in the North and the idea of Our Society that’s developing from it. Here are a few of my thoughts:

1 We need a space outside government to build this debate because governments are not good at speaking up for and advocating the interests of the most marginalised. Democracy’s strength is that it roughly reflects the views of the majority; its weakness is that it can perpetuate exclusion.

2 A strong civil society is one that can challenge government and speak truth to power. Government has a vested interest in avoiding real change, even when it claims the contrary. So we need independence and freedom to speak.

3 We need to engage with what is positive within the Big Society debate. Localism – the idea that decisions should be taken at the closest possible level to the people they affect – is a fine principle. You can’t seriously argue against civic engagement and creating a greater sense of community responsibility. Moves towards coproduction of public services should be received positively. The arguments and debates should be about how this should be achieved and with what support.

4 The principles of community organising advocated by the likes of Paulo Freire and Saul Alinsky (see previous post) have proved useful in more difficult contexts than the one we face now. We should make the most of the government’s current willingness to consider such models.

5  The spending cuts now being imposed mean we need a bigger society than ever – not just to pick up the pieces, but to set an agenda for the future and argue for the values and society we want to create from now on.

6 We need a strong civil society to build economic and environmental resilience. There are bigger and longer term issues to deal with than the spending cuts. We need to create local economic wealth, where communities are not victims of decisions taken in boardrooms thousands of miles away. We need to adapt to the consequences of climate change. To do that we need communities that are confident, well networked, and able to respond to change. A population that is engaged in debate, involved in social action and has a sense of mutual responsibility will be more able to face an uncertain future.

7 We need to own our visions of what society should be like. Our Society should be our story – one that is developed not in response to a government plan or a politician’s big idea, but as our own response to our own needs and concerns. Anything else will wither.

8 We need to recognise that the mainstream is created from the margins. Social change always comes from the edges and starts with a minority – from the Chartists to the suffragettes to the campaigners against lead in petrol to the environmental movement, all the changes we now generally see as positive started as unwelcome agitation. Acceptance by the majority comes through a process of debate and argument, often heated.

9 Finally, we need to stay sane. Government ministers want us all to stop watching telly and start volunteering. But many in community organisations need to cut back their volunteering and relax a bit more. They need to look after themselves and their families, keep their sanity and avoid burning out. We all need to recognise our limitations in order to achieve our potential.

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