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Five problems with the Big Society

By Paul Goodman

David Cameron and The Sun One regular media conference season stunt is for journalists to note, time and measure which bits of the leaders' speeches their activists clap and cheer.  It wasn't hard for them to spot earlier this week that David Cameron's passages on the Big Society - the main theme of his speech - won less applause than, say, his attacks on Labour.

The Prime Minister's clearly sensitive to this, and to the reporting that's followed.  He's written a piece about the Big Society in this morning's Sun which is noticably defensive in tone: the headline reads "Yes, my Big Society plan is ambitious, but I make no apology for that."  The article repeats one of Cameron's main messages - that the idea's about "giving millions of people more control over their lives".

So why aren't activists and MPs cheering the Big Society from the rafters?  (Jo Johnson, Boris's MP brother, described it last week as "a kernel of a good idea trying to get out and no one can argue with the broad thrust of it, but up until now it's been a bit intangible and incomprehensible, making it an odd and unpersuasive theme to some people.")  Are we just a cranky and obdurate lot?  After all, most Conservatives lap up all that stuff about the little platoons, civil society, the voluntary sector, non-professionals helping to run state services, and so on.

Futhermore, quite a lot of us are the voluntary sector, so to speak.  Many of the Wycombe Association members and supporters when I was the local MP were volunteers, helping to run the local Red Cross or raise money for the Iain Rennie Hospice.  The situation won't have changed in the six months or so since I left.  So why weren't some of us more enthused by the Big Society bit of the Prime Minister's speech?

I think that there are five main reasons -

  • The main problem facing Britain is the state of the economy - and the Big Society idea seems distant from it.  The country faces its biggest spending scaleback in modern times.  The speech was a chance to level with voters about why it's necessary - and make them an offer about better times to come after it's over.  It didn't grasp the opportunity.
  • To some, it's a bit paternalistic.  I don't agree with this view, but I know people who do - who think that the Big Society conjures up an image of comfortable types in rural settings helping to run the village fete, and risks sketching a caricature of the Cameron leadership as a bunch of out-of-touch toffs.
  • To some, it risks irritating voters.  "So you're cutting my services, raising my taxes - and now you want me to run the local school.  Get lost - that's the Government's job."  This is the response that some Tories I know fear the electorate will give to the Big Society concept.  I think the problem's managable, but I see the point.
  • It's a bit vague.  I suspect that this is intrinsic to the Big Society concept.  Lots of good and often little things happening locally are hard for voters to grasp, and for government to package in a big way - unlike, say, selling council houses to their tenants or shares to individuals.  Those policies gave people concrete, personal gains - and government clear, hard numbers of winners.  The Big Society isn't a retail offer.
  • It's not clear what the Government's plan is for helping to make the Big Society happen.  I think this is the biggest difficulty.  Activists would wear the Big Society more easily if they could see how the Coalition's going to help deliver it.  They want to know answers to such questions as: which Department's in charge?  How many are involved?  What's their collective plan?  Will there be a Big Society bill and, if so, why?  How much will it cost?  How much will it save?  How will progress be measured?  How will it be presented and sold to voters?

None of these problems are insuperable.  I repeat: the Big Society's a great idea.  But I'm not convinced it should have been the final focus of the Party's Conference week.


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