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Is the Big Society in BIG Trouble?

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So the day after David Cameron effectively relaunches the ‘Big Society’, with a new ‘white paper’, his key figure in charge of implementing the Big Society, Lord Wei of Shoreditch, resigns….

That could hardly be worse timing! Surely Cameron knew Wei was going?!? In which case it would have been much more politically astute to have rescheduled the launch of the white paper. As it is, Wei’s departure is a gift to Labour, with Shadow Cabinet Office minister Theresa Jowell saying, “….yet again”  the Big Society is “descending into farce. Only a day after Cameron told us all to take more responsibility, it appears that there will now be nobody in his government responsible for bringing the Big Society into reality.”

If Cameron didn’t know Wei was going, then it says something about Wei that he could time his resignation to such negative effect or about either Cameron’s judgement in recruiting such a fickle ally or  Cameron’s treatment of Wei that he could undermine his boss in such a damaging way.

Whatever the circumstances of Wei’s depearture, the effect is damaging both to Cameron personally and to the development of the Big Society concept.

Whether you think Cameron is being honest when he says the Big Society is the thingI’m most passionate about in public life. This is what is in my heart. It’s what fires me up in the morning” – or it really is just an attempt to distract from the damage the cuts are doing to the social fabric of our kingdom, he certainly seems to be sticking with the theme. Even in face of withering criticism such as that of Jowell who said of the latest Big Society relaunch: “Under the indiscriminate impact of accelerated cuts, the essential elements of community life are slowly being starved of sustenance. What we lose in the next two years may become impossible to rebuild in ten.”

The Big Society and the cuts
Part of Cameron’s problem, of course, is that the cuts are doing very real damage – and the damage is going to get a lot worse before it eases off. Plus, that easing off may be some distance in the future if Vince Cable’s weekend statements about the abysmal state of Britain’s economic prospects are anything to go by. Thus, it may be that Cameron’s cuts and the general economic malaise of the country see damage to our social fabric on a par with the devastation of the traditional working classes in the early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher.

It is, of course, the Coalition Government’s mantra that there really is no way out of Britain’s financial mess other than the 25% cuts programme Chancellor George Osborne decreed last October. For all that Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls is said to really still believe Britain should invest and grow its way out of the deficit, Labour leader Ed Milliband is insisting Balls sticks – in public, at least! – with predecessor Alistair Darling’s view that the cuts should be at a slightly lower rate of 20% and over a longer period of time. So even though Osborne now acknowledges some need for investment and growth, the major players are pretty much agreed on the cuts – it’s only quite how deep and quite how fast on which they disagree.

The conundrum then is this: when people are losing their jobs…and then their houses…and then their relationships crack under the pressure, will they want to donate to charitable and community ventures from what little money they have? It could be argued that all the newly-unemployed will have the time to get engaged in charitable and community ventures…but will they be motivated to? When you’ve done everything right – done your job to the best of your ability, looked after your family and been a good, tax-paying citizen – only to lose much of what’s really important to you through no obvious fault of your own, do you really want to be told to take on unpaid work to help others by the man who ordered the cuts which have cost you so much?

It’s a slap in the face for the BLUE vMEME. Do what’s right…and you lose almost everything. It’s not supposed to be like this! Since the theory is that vMEMES ebb and flow according to the life conditions, if the life conditions are no longer appropriate to BLUE, then expect something very different. In the students fees protests last November, we saw a lot of angry RED damaging the property of those the demonstrators saw as being unaffected by the cuts – banks, high-end retailers, Conservative Party headquarters…even Charles & Camilla’s car!

My hunch is that we’re going to see an awful lot more of that kind of thing in the next couple of years. In Zygmunt Bauman’s (1988) terms, we’re going to see more and more people no longer able to participate in – be ‘seduced’ into – the consumerist society. Instead, they join the ranks of the ‘Repressed’. What we saw in the student fees protest could also be seen as those who feared they were going to be barred from the ranks of the Seduced – not being able to go to university being perceived as a severe restriction on career prospects.

Of course, the real story is not as simple as that. Students can still go to university and enhance their career prospects – it’s just that the debt incurred works in a different way and may prove more burdensome for many. Unfortunately, the Government is failing it get its message across – even with as formidable a figure as Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes spearheading the campaign to give students the real facts about the new fees structure.

Getting the message across
When it comes to the economy, it seems the Government is not entirely sure just what the message it is failing to get across actually is.

According to Vince Cable at the weekend, Britain’s economic malaise is more than just a return of the old boom-and-bust cycle Gordon Brown supposedly put an end to; it’s also a consequence of an ongoing restructure of the global economy. Eg: “Britain is no longer one of the world’s price setters. We take our prices from international commodity markets driven by China and India.”

This is bad news for Cable’s party boss. Nick Clegg has staked the Lib Dems’ electoral fortunes on the Coalition Government being able to turn the economy around sufficiently by 2015 for there to be a ‘feel good’ factor working for the Coalition partners in that year’s general election. Considering the drubbing the Lib Dems received in this April’s elections, the last thing Clegg wants to hear is Cable saying that Britain will have to get used to being poorer on at least a semi-permanent basis.

In a poorer Britain, of course, people doing it for themselves, rather than relying on a cash-strapped government – the essence of the Big Society meme – might be a highly practical approach. In fact, it may turn out to be the only way some things get done!

The question then comes back to: how do you get people – many of whom will have suffered severely because of the cuts – motivated to give to time and some of the little money they have to charity and community programmes?

That Cameron is not a particularly good communicator – and struggles to get his message beyond his core electorate – is indicated by the failure of the Tories to achieve a majority in the Commons when up against a jaded Labour Government and a prime minister (Brown) perceived by many to be petty and ineffectual. Many Tory campaigners reported they found it difficult to get the Big Society message across to voters on the doorstep – and a number simply dropped it from their list of issues to discuss.

Even now Cameron struggles to define just what the Big Society is, The best he could manage at Monday’s relaunch was: “The Big Society is not some fluffy add-on to more gritty and more important subjects. This is about as gritty and important as it gets – giving everyone the chance to get on in life and making our country a better place to live.”

To underline the Government’s commitment to the Big Society concept, Cameron wants his ministers to undertake a day of voluntary service over the course of the year with a charity or community group.

Yet, how much Cameron fails to understand how messages are received – the heart of Memetics – is demonstrated by his appointing Tory party donor and former ‘non-dom’ tax avoider Lord Ashcroft to head a review of British Army bases in Cyprus. When people are losing jobs and homes and being told by Cameron to give to charity and community projects,  Ashcroft’s appointment (though nominally unpaid) looks like more ‘jobs for the boys’ amongst the wealthy and the elite. No wonder Nick Clegg is said to be furious about the appointment!

A similar insensitivity with regard to how messages are perceived can be found in Cameron’s comments to the Daily Telegraph in April about it being OK to appoint political interns on the basis of personal contacts, rather than the more formal but equal opportunities-oriented basis Clegg was championing. The cynics might point to this and argue from that Cameron is really an old-fashioned Tory who just does as he wishes and only bothers with the ‘little people’ when he needs to exploit them. Certainly at times he seems to run off a RED/BLUE vMEME harmonic of pure arrogance!

Successful communication is about values
Or, more specifically, understanding and appreciating diversity in values.

While RED and BLUE might seem to dominate in his thinking on political appointees, when it comes to the Big Society, David Cameron’s language seems to indicate more that it’s GREEN (look after people on a community basis) and BLUE (because it’s our duty). GREEN thinking is way too complex for most people  – in 1976 James Shaver & William Strong raised doubts as to whether most people develop beyond what is now termed BLUE.

As for that vMEME, if many people are downscaling from BLUE to RED because of adverse life Circumstances, then a BLUE call to duty – when they’d done their ‘duty’ and got made redundant as a reward – is not likely to have much influence.

Rather than pitch the Big Society at BLUE and GREEN levels, Cameron would do better to make it ‘cool’ for RED so that helping out in a community project becomes a means of gaining status and respect. A short cut to achieving this would be to get celebrities to volunteer.

The ‘cult of celebrity’ has grown exponentially in tandem with the growth of mass media.  One psychologist interested in our fascination with celebrity is Kate Douglas. Douglas (2003) has suggested that it is evolutionarily adaptive to model successful individuals because, by learning from them, it may shorten our own route to success. So, who better to be seen demonstrating Big Society attitudes, values and activities at a time when many people are struggling to be successful (due to the cuts).

If the people need to learn to do for themselves what the Government can no longer afford to do, then, to maintain our society, the ability of the people to do has to grow at least that little bit faster than the Government’s ability to do decreases. Which means people have to be persuaded to volunteer ahead of the sheer necessity to take it up on themselves.

Which, in turn, means David Cameron has to persuade more than cajole. And persuading means working with what is important to people – their values – more than what’s important to you (your values).

More people in this kingdom think in PURPLE and RED than BLUE, ORANGE and GREEN. Which is why The Sun sells more copies than The Independent and why more people watch Coronation Street than Panorama. Thus, Big Society advocates have got to learn to talk the language of the people they want to communicate to.

So, Dave, maybe give Take That a call…get as many celebs doing Big Society stuff as you can. Make it cool. Make it fun!

…oh, and Dave, if you want to get re-elected in 2015, you’ve got to be seen as more trustworthy than the other lot. No more Ashcroft deals, huh?!

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  1. Eileen Conn says

    Keith - a very interesting comment as usual, and continues to show how helpful it is to have an SDi light to shine on the complexities. Have you thought of trying to interest Philip Blond in this way of looking at things? He seems to have some way in to the Cameronian thinking.

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