What is the Lib Dem position on ‘The Big Society’?

by Stephen Tall on September 20, 2011

I was called by a colleague I know through my day-job last week: ‘What is the Lib Dem position on charitable giving?’ she asked. Beyond a bland ‘We’re in favour of it,’ I found myself a bit stuck for an answer.

Initially I put it down to my ignorance, and decided I should do some research, call a few people up, and find out something a bit more helpful, a bit more substantive. But coincidentally that day I happened to read this article — How can charities exert an influence on Lib Dem policies? — in Third Sector.

And it turns out that it’s not just me who’s a bit stuck for an answer. The party is as well:

The party has no minister in the Office for Civil Society, which sets much voluntary sector policy, and its conference papers make no mention of the government’s big society agenda. It is difficult to know where the party stands on key issues, such as public service reform, commissioning and the government’s role in encouraging charitable giving and volunteering, because it has not appointed a spokesperson on the sector.

Clues can be found in Community Futures: Policies on the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering, a 38-page document published in March, now adopted as Liberal Democrat policy. Many of its proposals match the government’s agenda: it supports impact measurement, deregulation, social banking and reform of the vetting and barring system. It also pledges that “in future we will require all legislative proposals to include a voluntary sector impact statement”.

Baroness Liz Barker, who chaired the policy group that produced the report, says the group has not arranged any discussions of sector policy at the conference. Asked whether she thinks the report has influenced government policy, she says: “I don’t know, really.” She stresses that it is Liberal Democrat, not coalition government, policy.

And I was particularly struck by the following paragraph:

One party member, who works for a charity and asks not to be named, says: “At a national level I don’t think the Liberal Democrats have had a huge impact on the big society agenda. It feels like it has been driven by the Conservatives. It was always David Cameron’s idea.” Asked how optimistic he is that Barker’s proposals will be implemented, he says: “Not very.”

As I explained to my colleague on the phone, this policy lacuna is an odd one for the Lib Dems to have. The concept of ‘The Big Society’ taken at face value — bottom-up initiaves, leveraging volunteer networks, community self-empowerment, collective action not reliant on the state — is an eminently liberal one.

The fear has always been that in the Conservatives’ hands it is little more than an excuse for government to abdicate responsibility. All the more reason, therefore, for Lib Dems to ensure our voice is a strong one, helping shape ‘The Big Society’, and for liberals to reclaim it. To date, though, our suspicion of its Tory authorship and marketing seems to have precluded our drive to make it work for our liberal vision.

‘How to make it happen?’ That was the question on my mind as I put down the phone, slightly embarrassed that I was unable to give a more convincing answer to my colleague’s straightforward question on charitable giving. Your thoughts, please…