Editorial: What does 'big society' mean?

David Cameron has left many questions unanswered for the voluntary sector, writes Stephen Cook

Last week, David Cameron introduced us to the concept of "big society", which he wants to take over from "big government" in a bid to repair what he has called "broken society".

He also announced the minor coup that Debbie Scott, leader of the welfare-to-work charity Tomorrow's People, has agreed to be a Tory peer.

Cameron's argument was that the alternative to big government was not no government, or even "smart government". It was the remaking of society by redistributing power to individuals and communities, increasing transparency and accountability at the same time.

The agents of this change would be social entrepreneurs, community activists and "a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation".

He said this would mean strengthening civic institutions such as local shops, post offices and town halls. And government would use loans alongside grants to "break the culture of charities and social bodies being dependent on the state for handouts".

It remains hard to discern what this would really mean for the voluntary sector. The current Government is already trying to foster social enterprise and service delivery by the sector, and produces similar rhetoric about community and responsibility.

Whichever party wins the next election, the reality is that the restoration of the public finances will be the overriding priority and there will be less money available for the sector.

The likelihood is that the Conservatives would go further than Labour in reducing direct support - note the perjorative word "handouts".

Would they be any more successful than Labour has been in securing new sources of finance for the sector, and in creating more favourable conditions for it to win public service contracts? And would the broader attempt to hand society's problems back to society itself really alleviate rather than increase hardship?

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