Skip to content

The Big Society And ‘Dysfunctional’ Communities

April 21, 2010

The Conservatives’ Big Society proposals, derived from their Broken Britain idea, might more truthfully be called the Boot Straps (community use of) proposals; for that is what they advocate. Scant hope here that disadvantaged communities will receive the support and investment they still need. The Big Society help them join mainstream society. Rather, Big Society rhetoric – ‘dysfunctional communities’, not disempowered ones; ‘platoons of volunteers’ comprising all adults in every UK community – suggests an altogether more prescriptive model of modern British society.

The core concept of the Conservative Leader, David Cameron‘s Big Society is, as his policy speech demonstrates, that ‘empowering’ people to get together will do the job of repairing what he contentiously refers to as Broken Britain:

[Conservative] policies will give new powers and rights to neighbourhood groups: the “little platoons” of civil society – and the institutional building blocks of the Big Society….. Our ambition for the UK is clear: we want every adult in the country to be an active member of an active neighbourhood group.

To achieve this, Conservatives aim over the next parliament to create a new “neighbourhood army” of 5,000 professional community organisers that would give communities the help they need to work together and tackle their problems, [operating] independently of government, …. not be employed by the state [and…] required to raise funds to pay for their own salaries.

Platoons of all citizens?
So ‘little platoons’ of civil activists, engaging every adult in the UK, are about to achieve what massive government investment and effort has in David Cameron’s view so far delivered only partially, if at all.

Let us however put aside incredulity, to ask for instance:

• what impact can five thousand people – unpaid by the state, but still assuming they are all actually active – spread across a country of over sixty million people have, by the end of five years?

• are you personally, to pose an age-old question, going to undertake your (neighbourhood) civic duty with a glad heart, as prescribed?

Modelling communities
Even more fundamentally worrying is the model of ‘communities’ which underpins this extraordinary Conservative ambition, to have every adult in the country volunteer for work in the local activists’ platoon.

Notions of community capacity building and community resilience – until now largely the domains of progressive political thought – have surely here reached their zenith:

All we have to do, is set the people free!

‘Platoons’ of volunteer activists will do the rest.

The Conservatives’ discovery of double devolution is ironic for those who have long held that the micro-community is critical.

What, it seems, we were missing is the idea that this level is enough. The state might do a bit at the micro level to help individuals to hone their skills (‘training’…); but that is all it needs to do.

Can whole communities be ‘dysfunctional’?
Nonetheless, even the Tories see an obstacle to progress; dysfunctional communities will need to be sorted.

If the prospect of being ‘platooned’ to undertake your civic duty is a matter of concern, the idea of a whole community being ‘dysfunctional’ is infinitely moreso.

Critical questions include:

• Is ‘dysfunction’ a denial of deeply embedded disadvantage?

• Can an entire community really be dysfunctional? (Is it even sociologically possible?)

• Is this idea insulting to many decent people who live in these communities?

• Would members of a community blanket-labelled dysfunctional want to join their neighbourhood platoon?

• How does this fit with the Tory Work Programme proposals about new sanctions for those who refuse to take (Conservative defined?) responsibility?

Dysfunction is not the same as disadvantage
Big Society ideas about ‘Broken Britain’ will not empower the most challenged communities.

Conservatives see disadvantaged communities as dysfunctional; they will not continue to invest serious government funds in them.

In his Big Society announcement, David Cameron referred to Saul Alinsky, the American activist of the 1930s. That was the time of the Great Depression and the misery of the pull yourself up by your own bootstraps philosophy of economics.

But the remedy which actually worked was Keynesian, not Cameroon.

A version of this article, entitled Some critical questions for David Cameron’s Big Society and ‘dysfunctional communities’, was first published on LabourList on 21 April 2010.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Don Pinchbeck permalink
    August 19, 2010 20:48

    There appears to be a depressing negativity in these comments, with not a breath of a positive alternative to be found. That doesn’t seem very useful. Two thoughts: when Hitler was heading for our shores, food was scarce etc, the external threat brought out a sense of community sharing and supporting that I remember very well. It went across social boundaries too. Now, where do we find a recognisable common enemy or threat? I work with Emmaus, a secular social enterprise that every year enables hundreds of disadvantaged, often homeless individuals to regain their self respect and restore themselves as contributing members of society – and it works regardless of which political party is in power. It does so by building a sense of community and support of each disadvantaged person for the others. It provides a secure environment where people can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”. This is of course, the only way it can happen, otherwise full independence cannot be recovered. They have to recognise their situation, that there is a way out, and then want to do it. As usual, some in this world talk about why things are wrong and usually have little else to offer that is practical and positive. Others just get on with it and make a difference. Could I make a plea that negative comments must be balanced with positive options, including what the writer is actually doing about it. The needs are great, and are not going to go away anytime soon. And this will continue to be the case regardless of the stance and utterings of politicians of whatever hue. After all, they too are also just fallible human beings with limitations of their own.

    • hilary permalink*
      August 19, 2010 21:30

      Don, you might like to take a look at ‘About’, if you want to see what positive actions there are – and also at Dreaming Realist etc.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment,

  2. May 2, 2011 21:12

    Its funny because the conservatives across the pond here in the U.S. want to downsize and break it down to state governing. Every sociologist here wants a socialized net that everyone is a part of. So its really nice to hear you wanting to keep things local. You would be considered a great conservative thinker here.

  3. hilary permalink*
    May 2, 2011 21:56

    That’s very interesting GDF! Thanks.

    I guess (as you’ll see from the other ‘Big Society’ tagged pieces on this blog) that it all depends what sort of ‘socialized net’ people want.

    Some aspects of this ‘net’ may be quite unnecessarily constricting, but other aspects – for instance, economic and environmental infrastructure – are essential to any sort of stasis in our modern, complex world. (It’s a different question, whether the politicians are clever enough to structure such things well.)

    And it’s those essential wider economic and environmental aspects which it often seems are most opposed by conservative politicians.

    To my mind, populations are now simply too big not to be placed in formal infrastructures; but that doesn’t mean that every small, local decision has to be handed down from on high – as you say.

  4. S. Jones permalink
    July 16, 2011 06:47

    Whilst no proponent of ‘big society’ rhetoric, there are most certainly dyfunctinal communities – I’m currently living in one.

    many ‘decent people’ might live within them, but they seem happy to allow domineering, anti-social behaviour to dominate -a sort of collusion of silence, or allowing others to act out by proxy – who knows what the psychology is, nonetheless, I can assure you that it a strong characteristic of such communities


  1. Tweets that mention The Big Society And ‘Dysfunctional’ Communities « Hilary Burrage --

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: