The Fundraiser - Practical advice and insight for the charity sector

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Tessa Jowell reveals what’s wrong with the Big Society

One year into the Big Society, Tessa Jowell calls for a clearer balance between community and government.

One year on, David Cameron’s Big Society vision seems to have stalled. Lots of promises have been made but little has been delivered. Soaring political speeches may get headlines, but in practice this rhetoric is contradicted by the government’s actions.

This is a real pity and has the potential to discredit a cherished and universally shared principle that has defined decently lived lives in communities up and down our country for generations. We value our relationships with those around us, do things whose benefits extend beyond us and our families, and believe that this contributes to a good and decent society. Our country is better when communities are strong.

While it is easy to support the rhetoric, the government’s failure to pursue the Big Society through progressive principles in practice means that, without a change in direction, it will fail.

Cameron acts as if exhortation and prime ministerial support are enough. His failure to give leadership across government and to ensure the implementation of action that gives practical definition, consistency and support to his vision has been fatal.

The wrong idea 

The real problem is ideological: Cameron is convinced that you can either have government or civic action, but you can’t have both. He wrongly believes that the presence of government support (local or national) inevitably enervates community action.

This is where free market fundamentalism undermines Cameron's idea of the Big Society: our economy and our communities are expected to spring into life the minute government leaves the scene. The invisible hand of society is assumed to replace the invisible hand of the market.

As it says in ACEVO’s Big Society Commission report [1], published in May, the government needs “to recognise that if we want people to take more responsibility... we will need to give them the encouragement and the vehicles to do so...Government’s role must be one of acting as partner, catalyst and mobiliser.”

I agree. The government is foolish to see this essential partnership as statist.

It is here where Cameron’s doctrinaire obsession with a smaller state defeats his own objects. Over the 13 years under the New Labour government, we saw a significant growth in charities and community organisations – the building blocks of our communal and social life. 

Over the next year, the future of many of these lies in the balance.

Limited sustenance

Even with the tax incentives provided in the Budget, charities will face a tax rise of at least £225m this year, as a result of the end of transitional Gift Aid relief and the rise in VAT. This comes on top of £900m in spending cuts.

By 2014/15, ACEVO has estimated that the impact of Government decisions on spending and taxation will reduce the sector’s income by £3.1bn per year.

Government ministers have talked a lot about a step change in philanthropy and giving as a replacement for the partnership between the state and civil society. Obviously, we support any measures to increase charitable giving and add to the resources available to charities, particularly in this difficult climate.

But while some of the measures in the Giving White Paper are welcome, we have to remember that alongside the Government’s cuts and tax rises, giving and philanthropy is also falling.

This year the country’s top philanthropists are giving £818m (around a third less than they did last year) and individual giving is still a long way from its peak of £10.6bn in 2007/08.

As we face the biggest squeeze on living standards for a generation, it is highly unlikely that changes in giving will see charities through the Government induced financial crisis that they are currently facing.

As readers of The Fundraiser will be aware, the situation is perilous for many organisations. According to a recent NCVO survey [2] of charity leaders, 55 per cent of charities will cut staff and 35 per cent will cut their services, by the end of June. More than half said that financial conditions had got worse this year, and more than 97 per cent believe that conditions will be difficult over the next 12 months.

Under the indiscriminate impact of public sector 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.

So while we support their aspirations, we call on the Government to resolve this contradiction, and to recognise that the way forward is to adopt a clear policy of community where possible, government where necessary.


Tessa Jowell is shadow minister for the Cabinet Office




  1. Powerful people, responsible society, May 2011, ACEVO. The report can be viewed at
  2. Charity Forecast report, March 2011, NCVO. For more information visit


This article first appeared in The Fundraiser, Issue 6, June 2011

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