The Big Big Society Failure?

21 04 2010

Senior Tories have come out against David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea, and the Tories look out-of-touch with an electorate who is expressing its frustration by turning to the Liberal Democrats in droves.

The ‘Big Society’ is a fundamentally post-bureaucratic idea: ween people off their dependence on the inefficient, autocratic state, in favour of civic activism and social responsibility. However, the Tories have been way off on delivering the message. A staunch Tory friend, who has campaigned ardently for a smaller state and greater civic activism, gave me the following response to the Conservatives’ proposals:

“The Big Society is an atrocious idea – can someone get them to stop talking about it. Imagine what the young professionals are making of it. Life is complex enough without saying as well as struggling to earn money and bring up a family you have to coach badminton to some illegal immigrants in Ilford!”

What went so wrong that someone fundamentally in favour of the Tories idea (and a longtime party supporter) can become so outraged at how it has come across?

  • The stress on civic activism placed emphasis on what people would have to do, rather than the idea that they would be ‘granted back’ their freedom.  The ‘Big Society’ appeared to be, somewhat perversely, another burden imposed by the state.
  • The ‘Big Society’ undermined the Conservatives’ commitment to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’. This let Peter Mandelson portray the well-meaning Big Society idea as the ‘agenda for abandonment‘. The Conservatives failed – totally – to demonstrate how being anti-Big Government could also be pro-Compassionate Conservative.
  • The presentation of the  ‘Big Society’ agenda agitated a nagging feeling amongst those skeptical of Cameron himself. The synthesis of Thatcher’s famous comment on ‘Society’ and the Tories’ anti ‘Big Government’ drumbeat was a little bit too PR-savvy when it came from CallMeDave’s mouth.  It sounded too-clever-by-half, as well as being too progressive: in other words, too Dave. Perhaps David Willetts could have made it stick.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin )

Labour and the Lib Dems underestimate Cameron’s commitment to the PBA at their peril

4 01 2010

Jeremy Hunt, the shadow Culture Secretary has announced that, if they are elected, the Conservatives will offer a £1,000,000 prize for a person or team who “harnesses the wisdom of the crowd” by producing an online platform to solve “common problems”.

£1,000,000 is a large amount of money, but perhaps more significantly, it is going to be funded by the taxpayer. In a flash, it seems that crowdsourcing has moved from a ‘neat idea’ lauded in Palo Alto to a potential building-block of government policy.

Hunt’s argument in support of the policy was robust and convincing:

“Conservatives believe that the collective wisdom of the British people is much greater than that of a bunch of politicians or so-called experts. And new technology now allows us to harness that wisdom like never before. So at this time of year, when families and friends are getting together, we’re announcing a new idea to help the British people get together to help solve the problems that matter to them.”

We saw something similar from David Cameron in his speech yesterday:

“We will create incentives and use the best technology to encourage and enable people to come together, solve their problems together, make this society stronger together. As we do this we will redistribute power from the political elite to the man and woman in the street. Within months of a Conservative victory there would start the most radical decentralisation of power this country has seen for generations.”

The Tories appear serious about making themselves the post-bureaucratic party, and the adoption of a high-profile, well-funded crowdsourcing initiative is to be welcomed.

The Labour and Lib Dem Responses

The Lib Dem spokesperson was dismissive of the idea (and one senses rather missed its significance):

“This prize is clearly a publicity stunt and a total waste of taxpayers’ money. There are already a multitude of ways to communicate with large numbers of people online, from Facebook to discussion groups.”

Tessa Jowell’s response was even more hopeless:

“Families want serious, thought-through policies that meet their aspirations, not short-term public relations stunts. Labour already makes full use of collaboration and social networking technologies to consult with people.”

What do these people think crowdsourcing, when undertaken properly, will provide? A million pound commitment is not a public relations stunt when you have set out your stall as the party who will make necessary public spending cuts to reduce the public deficit. The Conservatives must believe in the potential for improvement that the practices and activities of the post-bureaucratic age will bring.


It seems clear from the Labour and Lib Dem responses that they are hoping that the PBA will not emerge as an issue, as a detailed look at Labour’s “full use of collaboration and social networking technologies to consult will people” may find them rather lacking.

It seems a sensible (and laudable) Tory strategy to attempt to push such things onto the electoral, since they are far more credible than both Labour and the Lib Dems on the issues, and it provides an opportunity to speak about something more inspirational and attractive than spending cuts and Afghanistan.

Ali Unwin (@aliunwin)