Blow for Cameron as Liverpool pulls out of the “big society”

Liverpool council says the coalition’s cuts make the project unworkable.

After the coalition's "big society tsar" was embarrassingly forced to reduce his hours, here's some more bad news for David Cameron's pet project.

Liverpool City Council has pulled out of the initiative after it concluded that the coming cuts made its participation impossible. It is particularly embarrassing for Cameron because, Lenin-like, he selected Liverpool as one of the four "vanguard communities" that would be the "training grounds of this change".

The head of Liverpool council, Joe Anderson, has written a letter explaining the decision to Cameron and it's worth quoting from at length. First, he says the government "has failed to deliver a single change that we have requested".

Liverpool has been doing the "Big Society" for many years. We call it "working with our communities" and it is something we are very much committed to. We pride ourselves on our excellent working relationships with our community and voluntary sectors, and indeed have done our upmost to support these sectors – as they are crucial to the success of our city.

He then warns that the loss of £100m of area-based grants and a huge £141m reduction in council spending has put many voluntary and community groups at risk.

[T]heir ability to help us improve the quality of life for Liverpool residents has been seriously undermined by two government decisions. Firstly, the loss of over £100m of Area Based Grants to Liverpool has put many organisations' very survival at risk. These funds, aimed at tackling deprivation, were widely utilised by the voluntary sector. Secondly, Liverpool's extremely poor local government settlement means a huge £141m reduction in council spending over the next two years. This level of cuts will significantly impact on council services, including the funding of many of our voluntary and community groups.

How can the City Council support the Big Society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups?

He concludes: "Liverpool City Council can no longer support the 'Big Society' initiative, as a direct consequence of your funding decisions."

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An equally powerful critique of the coalition's approach comes from the television producer Phil Redmond (of Brookside and Hollyoaks fame). He told the Local Government Chronicle: "I went along with it all because I thought it would be a good way of getting things going, but it's been impossible to get any traction because of the cuts – everyone is dealing with post-Spending Review trauma."

Redmond had planned to lead a project to boost volunteering across Liverpool but was forced to put this on hold while National Museums Liverpool, which he chairs, deals with budget cuts of 15 per cent. He laments that "the big society has become subsumed by the cuts".

A similar complaint has been made by "Red Tory" Philip Blond, who warned that the "drive for cuts and deficit reduction" was "running too fast" for the big society to flourish.

What makes these criticisms so wounding for Cameron is that they come from figures committed to the principles of the "big society". Tory backbenchers who dismiss it as "BS" can safely be ignored, but figures such as Redmond and Blond cannot.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.