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The 'Big Society' Manifesto Gap? A Call for Leadership

01/05/2015 00:50 BST | Updated 30/06/2015 10:59 BST

Can it really be just 5 years ago that David Cameron was inviting us all to "join the government of Britain"?

The 2010 Conservative Party Manifesto began with an audacious challenge: "Some politicians say: 'give us your vote and we will sort out all your problems'. We say: real change comes not from government alone. Real change comes when the people are inspired and mobilised, when millions of us are fired up to play a part in the nation's future. Yes this is ambitious. Yes it is optimistic. But in the end all the Acts of Parliament, all the new measures, all the new policy initiatives, are just politicians' words without you and your involvement."

The 2015 Conservative Party Manifesto contains only one invitation for public involvement in the nation's future - a pledge to build on what David Cameron calls our "nation of volunteers" by passing a law requiring public sector employers and companies with more than 250 staff to give staff up to three days a year to do voluntary work. All good in so far as it goes but apparently that's it. One solitary requirement to do what many big companies (and also lots of smaller ones) do well already.

In 2010 it was the "Big Society election" when opposition leader David Cameron raided natural Labour territory for a paean to solidarity, compassion and cooperation and a promise to extend localism, citizen engagement and cross sector collaboration. No hustings was complete without reference to the power of the people.

Maybe only Nick Clegg signed up for national service but others, myself included and particularly in the voluntary sector, welcomed the rhetoric whilst searching desperately for the substance. Gradually the penny dropped. The emperor, if not completely starkers, was shivering in his boxers. Disappointment turned to disillusionment for hope dashed is worse than no hope at all.

Even Big Society minister Nick Hurd, a solid and often isolated beacon was eventually shabbily dismissed on the empty pretext of the PMs drive for more women and greater diversity in Government. The new minister was a man, middle aged, white and hot foot from the treasury.

The free thinking, idealism of Steve Hilton, albeit sadly unspecific, has now been replaced in the Tory high command by the grinding disciplines of Lynton Crosby. There is no big open hearted renewal of the "join me in government" invitation in this year's manifesto just one modest pledge that will, apparently, help to "build a stronger society". Would that it were that simple.

I have owned the naivety of my own false optimism, but I still defend the value of the cross party core of the Big Society proposition - neighbourhood politics and localism, co-ops and community organising, volunteering, mutualism, and the small battalions. In practice, the policies, though worthy were thin and fatally undermined by public expenditure cuts in other places but the fundamental principles were still good ones, not new but good, humane and enduring.

That's why I appealed last year for the rehabilitation of those principles in this years manifestos. Now, with just a week to go in the campaign, I am unable to find any substantial reference in any major speech by any significant political figure (beyond the volunteering pledge) to these ideas.

Perhaps the derision of his own colleagues (not all of them on the back benches) was too painful and damaging for Cameron to fullfill the early promise or to repeat the exercise this time around but what of the opposition? When Labour leadership candidates traded references to "community organising" immediately after the 2010 election it seemed that the new opposition would be contesting the social turf. Ed Miliband subsequently encouraged this early confidence with the widely trumpeted appointment of international community organising guru Arnie Graf. For a while his influence was apparently formidable. Now it seems to have disappeared entirely, along with Arnie himself, back to the United States. I wonder if he and Hilton, now exiled to Stanford University, ever relive the glory days together?

The announcement of the Manchester deal, just before the campaigns began in earnest, rekindled my optimism. The joining up and devolution of health and social care services along with other devolved powers for the Manchester region suggested a late flowering of localism . As greater Manchester is Labour controlled and led by Labour grandee Sir Richard Leese it offered a rare opportunity for both Labour and Conservatives to share credit.

What happened? The national Labour leadership spoke out against the deal. Study the text and it is difficult to conclude that there was really any other reason than "not invented here". It was the kind of mean spirited and small minded tactics that get politics a bad name.

Yet whilst our political leaders have been largely retreating from this territory others, perhaps less obvious, have been crowding in. The Bishops recent "who is my neighbour?" letter to the people was an extraordinarily even-handed but effective exposition of the common good and Andy Haldanes "social value of volunteering" speech in which he likened the volunteering sector to the energy sector for its scale and significance, was made yet more remarkable by the fact that Mr Haldane is the deputy governor of the Bank of England.

These ideas still do have resonance with a lot of very different people and, more than ever they do still matter

There is still time. Here are five things that I would like to hear the party leaders say in the run up to May and deliver in the next five years

  1. We know that the government alone can't do everything and that a top-down state is too often oppressive rather than enabling. But contracting out public services shouldn't be about passing this role unchanged on to the private sector or others. As decision-makers we will ensure that public procurement at central and local levels is accessible for the voluntary sector, and works with them - learning from their expertise and local experience as well as supporting them to innovate and deliver.
  2. We acknowledge diseconomies of scale and will prioritise public service provision that is "local by default", that builds from the principles of co-design and co-production, that, put simply, engages the people it seeks to serve.
  3. If we are to involve more citizens in decision-making and allow local providers, statutory and voluntary, to pool resources and deliver the best service then, paradoxical though it may seem, the aspiration must have much stronger direction from the top. Requiring councils to work with local partners and to integrate budgets will generate the change that successive ministers have talked about but only tinkered with. We will introduce a local authority "duty to collaborate" with a matching "right to lead", empowering other local service providers to require the co-operation of the council if it fails to step up.
  4. The banks that crashed the economy must play their part as responsible corporate citizens. The Brown government introduced legislation to gather and redirect unclaimed assets from the high street banks - estimated at the time at £10bn. Less than £0.5bn has surfaced so far. There was an expectation at the time that the original group of contributors would be squeezed for more and the scheme extended to other financial institutions. Neither has happened. Potentially this represents an important pot for a voluntary and community sector that has struggled in recession but is so important to so many in the UK. We will go back for more.
  5. The public sector was designed to deliver reactive, acute services, targeted on occasional, exceptional need. The need is now neither occasional nor exceptional: more and more people need more and more help. The demand for acute public services is rising but the money to pay for them just isn't there. We will adopt a need reduction approach to the development of public services, prioritising early action and working with the whole community to prevent problems from occurring, not pick up the pieces afterwards.

My message today is a call for leadership. Most of this agenda is not about right or left. It should not be owned by one party or another. It is about right and wrong and even a week away from Polling Day - it's still not too late for a political leader to do the right thing.