Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Is Cameron's Big Society Just a Load of Rubbish?

When Dave was asked yesterday why he failed in the debate to mention any of the themes he had introduced 48 hours earlier at his Battersea power station manifesto launch he replied: 'Well, all the subjects were rather subjecty subjects'. Hmm. I kind of think I know what he means but if your main theme doesn't relate to any of the obvious election debating subjects maybe one has the wrong subject for a manifesto theme?

I have to confess I was attracted by the idea underlying the Tory manifesto and it seemed initially the Conservatives had come up with something quite fresh and radical in their quest for the hackneyed old idea of 'change'. But now I'm not so sure it's a good idea either intrinsically or as a piece of political marketing.

Yesterday's Guardian quoted a grass-roots Tory saying 'Power to the people isn't it? That's a pie in the sky dream. Community minded people are few and far between'. The Observer editorial took a look at it and found it flawed:

i) it seemed to assume 'voluntary action' will be a substitute for central funding- this smaller state will require smaller funding, whilst such reduction would reduce extent and depth of provision.

ii) there is no process envisaged whereby this tsunami of voluntarism will be generated: 'the method for harnessing this charitable impulse turns out to be mere exhortation'. I heard a community development worker on Radio 4 saying it might take a decade to encourage, wheedle and nourish a community to become self starting and ready to particapate in its own self improvement.

Writing in The Economist, Bagehot is sceptical of this overarching theme:

Are community groups really going to spring up to, say (the Tories do), manage local libraries? It is doubtful whether the incentives Mr Cameron is offering are strong enough to galvanise them. Indeed, his party’s faith in an imminent frenzy of civic activism rather contradicts another of its mantras—that British society is "broken".

I'm afraid Cameron and the author of this idea, his key strategists, Steve Hilton and Oliver Letwin, will have to accept that the main intellectual framework of the manifesto suffers from exactly the failings of which the Tories have always accused the left: well intentioned but impractical and based on an over oprtimistic assumtion about the average person's altruism.

How can you sell such an idea on the doorstep? Do two job families want to spend their evenings sitting in boring meetings to work out how litter can be picked up? Or would they prefer to spend these precious few hours available to them watching the telly en famille with maybe a visit to the local boozer later on to watch football on the telly and have a bit of a laugh?

I wish it were not the latter but anyone involved in volunbatry work will know that people recently invloved might display some initial enthusiam but that this most often falls away after a short period. The kind of wholly committed community minded activist is a very rare creature indeed. And yet Cameron has based a whole 100 page plus manifesto on the assumption such people are there, plentifully in our midst and just raring to go. Oh dear.

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