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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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.