A leading Catholic Labour MP has declared himself “a big fan of the Big Society.”
Addressing the Big Society Conference organised by the London Churches Group, Mission in London’s Economy and the Diocese of Southwark Public Policy Group, Jon Cruddas suggested that “the Big Society could be the cornerstone of the new politics.”
The Dagenham East and Rainham MP declared that “the debate shines a light on what Labour was and what it should be.”..“I come from an Irish Catholic working class background in that order,” said Mr Cruddas, who attributed his upbringing with a belief in an obligation to contribute to society. ”It meant a deep communitarian disposition,” he added.
While supporting the concept of the Big Society as a means to build community and counter the consumer culture that has developed over recent decades, he suggested that: “there is also a fear that it is a vehicle for unfinished business regarding the state. The jury is out on whether it is a vehicle for a more malign view of the state.”
Mr Cruddas complimented the faith based communities in his own east London constituency for helping the community. “The faith based communities held the line eg against extreme political voices (BNP etc) ricocheting around,” said Mr Cruddas. “The interesting thing about the Big Society is that is that it says more than its dessicated materials, we should all evangelise around it.”
He warned that there could be much devastation over the coming year, with the cuts agenda hitting the area of housing particularly hard.“I hope to see faith communities organising the terrain,” said Mr Cruddas.
Richard Farnell, professor of neighbourhood regeneration at Coventry University and Canon Theologian of Coventry Cathedral, stressed it was important that faith organisations were not co-opted by government. “Issues around inequality should be the start point for the Church around the Big Society,” said Mr Farnell.
He stressed the need for the Church to continue to profess its prophetic role which must involve putting justice at the forefront of its mission.
Chief Executive of the Directory for Social Change, Debra Allcock Tyler declared that the Big Society was not a new idea and that the Church and faith communities had been doing it for hundreds of years. The one failure of the Church was in not telling its own story of success sufficiently loudly.
She identified a contradiction at the centre of the rhetoric, namely that the austerity programme would see cuts being made to the very organisations that could deliver the Big Society.
Ms Allcock Tyler warned that where the church, charity and voluntary sector had lost its way recentl, was in seeking to deliver a political agenda for those in power.
She warned of the danger of those taking money from the state losing their independent voice.
The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Communities and Government David Stunnell MP, stressed the capacity of people to deliver for themselves. “Faith communities have been filling some of the gaps for years. The approach of faith communities is outward looking, looking for engagement with the community,” he said.
The minister stressed how the Coalition Government was committed to changing the way that power was distributed in the community, describing the Localism Bill as bringing “the biggest transfer of power out of Whitehall and back to local communities.”
He said there was an urgent need for more joined-up action, pointing out that in the government and the Church, people end up working separately to resolve the same problem. “We can do more to share good and bad practice, and work together to tackle common problems,” said Mr Stunnell.
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