08/27/2010 09:35 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Civil Society is the battleground for New Politics in the UK

It's a puzzling time for politics in the UK. All the familiar fault lines have fractured to create new patterns of connection between old enemies, leaving old friends angry and isolated. The Liberal Democrats, once considered a Centre Left Party are now in a deep embrace with the Conservatives, leaving huge swathes of their supporters stranded. And New Labour, so named to get away from the "Old" Labour left, has three out of five of its leadership candidates competing to display the best Left credentials, in the hope of capitalising on the re-alignment.

In the midst of this mud-bath, the new government - affectionately known as ConDem - is beginning to flesh out its flagship policy, the Big Society. Prime Minister David Cameron describes it as a hand-over of power from the State to local communities: Big Society signifies the end of the Big Government which, under Labour, stands accused of controlling every aspect of local and national life.

In theory, new communities of active citizens are going to partner or, if necessary, challenge local government for control of schools, environmental policy and policing. Americans will be familiar with the tripartite structure of British society - private sector, public sector and the more sprawling Third Sector (the charities, ngo's and volunteers that mop up all the important caring and activism that isn't covered by the first two). But it was so counter-intuitive for the Conservatives to champion the last element that Cameron decided to seize the moment, and called for it to be renamed the First Sector.

The government's initiative on strengthening civil society has come as an affront to not only the Labour Party - who see it as their domain - but to many of the traditionally non-partisan charities themselves. Not least because, at the very moment that the PM is calling for more volunteers, his Chancellor is cutting and in some cases, removing, their organisational budgets altogether. Accusations that the Big Society is mere rhetoric to cover for the more familiar Conservative policy of shrinking the State flow thick and fast from the media. But the charges are not sticking: the government is holding fast and insisting on the Big Society as the key idea in their New Politics.

And the zeitgeist is with them. Emphasising the role of social networks, technology, entrepreneurship (all of which first came to light in the New Labour era and were actively nurtured by Gordon Brown's social economy), the Big Society is difficult to discredit: in fact, to do so seems churlish. Some of the buzzier names in the field have accepted the call to service. Nat Wei, a founding member of the team that set up the educational charity Teach First, a project persuading top graduates to enter the teaching profession, was ennobled as Baron Wei and appointed Chair of the Big Society. Paul Twivy, who has founded classic UK third-sector enterprises like Time Banks, Changing the World for A Fiver and The Big Lunch, is the Big Society's CEO. Who could argue with their shared vision of creating the "largest mutual in the country"- owned by, and run for the benefit of all who sign up ? The Labour Party can't, they invented mutuals.

Maybe that is why David Miliband, front-runner for the Labour leadership following Gordon Brown's resignation, prefers to join them rather than beat them. Miliband has his own 'contribution' to an expanded civil society, called Movement for Change (M4C). In pledging to train 1000 Future Leaders aka community organisers - in time for the Labour Party Conference in September - the Shadow Foreign Secretary is making a none-too-subtle attempt to harness the Obama factor for the Centre Left of British politics.

Led by a team of young activists - many of whom who did their apprenticeships across Africa and Latin America - the Miliband feel is different, more confrontational, more politicised. A typical M4C project is to help mobilise private sector workers to attain the London Living Wage, a campaign already successfully undertaken at institutions as wide-ranging as the HSBC bank and Tate Modern. By contrast, Cameron's project is more likely to propose taking successful schools out of the control of local government. While both use the language of community, the Big Society narrative is "take charge of yourself", while M4C's is "take charge for yourself".

But will the public notice these differences of approach? When Tony Blair captured the centre ground of politics in 1997, it was because he articulated a politics that assuaged the guilt of Thatcher voters, without requiring much material self-sacrifice. Was that the lesson Cameron learnt over the ten years it took for his party to regain power - the importance of a feel-good message to the middle classes? If so, the message that 'ordinary people' (the middle-classes writ large) should have the right to make decisions about their own lives would probably fit the bill. But the question Labour asks is: who will stand up for the truly disadvantaged, when the Big Society claims they no longer have the State to take care of their interests, but only each other?

In his last major speech to supporters before the Labour Party ballot papers are distributed, David Miliband acknowledged that it will be difficult to outflank the Coalition on their rhetoric of "empowering the people" until the reality of the withdrawal of public services becomes clear. Meantime he will continue to use M4C to reform the party at the grass roots level, shifting the culture of activism from a focus on the narrow party-political sphere to the broader community.

The fact that both Davids agree that more should be achieved on a local level, often through volunteers, will no doubt confuse the voters, many of whom have not had to consider their own role in the third-sector until now. It opens up a huge debate about what can be considered as volunteer work and what should be paid for by the first and second sector budgets. Charities for example, may be established on principles of altruism, but they are often large, successful businesses that require buildings and staff to run them. Anyone who has ever taken on a volunteer or intern in their business knows that they are cash-effective but time-expensive, requiring the same training as a paid employee, and actually more care and attention thereafter to compensate them for their free labour. Non-governmental organisations similarly, will attest to the importance of strong, committed management in being able to run useful projects. And that costs.

At the moment both Cameron and Miliband lean heavily on the experiences of the two major London civil society groups, Citizens UK and London Citizens (the latter an umbrella organisation for smaller groups), for evidence of what can be achieved. And they are both inspiring, with campaigns to challenge local wages, security and housing as well as sanctuary. Both offer training (though it's rarely free) as well as ongoing mentoring.

But a close look at the membership reveals that almost all the participating groups are churches, mosques and synagogues. That's not a critique of the organisation - it's very positive for social cohesion - but it does suggest that volunteering requires an inner motivation and drive to be sustainable: the kind of drive that religion supplies. Hence, one of the leadership techniques taught at Citizens UK is 'How to connect faith and values for practical action.' While politicians may see this as a great way of capitalising on the religious communities, they should also note that in many areas it is happening already. Re-branding it won't save them any money or win votes.

The other source of volunteering that may come under scrutiny, as the Cameron government promotes the third sector to the first, is the enormous amount of unpaid work undertaken by women in the normal course of their lives. This ranges from caring work undertaken by mothers both at home and in the community, to the more professional charity work freely donated by wealthier women with time on their hands. If we are forced to articulate exactly what should and should not be paid for, would it not be reasonable for women to start measuring their contributions and, in some cases, demand to be paid?

For long term community carers as well as activists, the current political fascination with volunteering and cooperation will be viewed with some scepticism but also with some excitement: at the very worst, politicians will become much more familiar with the trials and tribulations of a sector they have always taken for granted. If civil society is to become the battleground for parties to display their superior community skills, then let the battle begin!