The “big society”: new doubts emerge

Cameron’s “big society bank” may begin with reserves of as little as £60m.

David Cameron's "big society" wasn't much of a hit with the voters or the Tory party (one MP memorably described it as "complete crap"), but today's the day when he finally launches the project, promising "the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power" ever seen.

Four "vanguard communities" (and what a peculiarly Leninist phrase that is) will be given the power and the money to run transport services, take over local assets such as pubs and set up broadband internet networks.

All of this will be financed through the creation of a "big society bank", using money raised from dormant bank and building society accounts. Alone among the press, the FT raises a sceptical eyebrow:

The British Banking Association has estimated there is probably £400m sitting in dormant bank accounts, which Mr Cameron wants to use for the bank's reserves. However, his advisers say a combination of foot-dragging by high street banks and the need to track down owners of dormant accounts means only a fraction of that sum will find its way into the new bank's coffers in time for its launch.

The bank is now expected to begin with reserves of as little as £60m, hardly enough to enable the voluntary sector to replace the "dead hand of the state".

On the Labour side, Ed Milband (who has just managed to raise £8,000 in 24 hours after an Obama-style appeal) has attacked the "big society" as a fig leaf for savage spending cuts. "People in the voluntary sector know that, for all the talk of a big society, what is actually on the way is cuts and the abandonment of community projects across Britain," he said. That may be the case, but the most persuasive critique remains a pragmatic one: in this ever more hectic age, who has time for the "big society"?

Cameron's hope that the "big society" will replace Big Government is reminiscent of the old Marxist belief that the state will "wither away" as a result of victorious socialism. We all know how that turned out. Cameron has a long way to go to convince us that his vision is any less utopian.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:

 

The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

...is, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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