Where art thou, "big society"?

Why Cameron's pet project has disappeared down the back of the political sofa.

Has anyone seen Dave's "big society"? It's an odd loss, because according to many, this was the closest thing Cameron had to a political philosophy. This was his pet project, and despite the mockery (the big society minister Francis Maude "didn't have time to volunteer"), few political sound bites have gained as many reams of news coverage. So why has it disappeared down the back of the political sofa and, importantly, what does it say about Cameron's leadership?

The big society's own guru, the "Red Tory" Phillip Blond, offers a pretty cutting explanation:

He (Cameron) was radical, but he risks retreating into orthodoxy and pragmatism.... A new approach to the state, business and society (call it the big or the good society) still lacks a politician of genius and vision to broker its future.

All the big players in the movement have now left. Blonde was distanced well before the controversy over his tax affairs. Steve Hilton - the "architect" behind the term - grew so frustrated he finally put on his shoes and moved to California and the movement's key adviser Nat Wei was dropped like a stone.

So why the retreat? David Cameron is a natural Shire Tory who believes in village greens and stable communities. The big society was his way of bringing his Oxfordshire values to the more economically liberal Tory MPs in Westminster. Sure it was useful for detoxifying the Conservative brand, but it was also meant to be a unifying vision of action beyond the state. But he didn't pull it off. The liberals remained skeptical, and those who did share his values thought it was pretty disingenuous given the cuts. As Max Wind-Cowie from Demos puts it:

Reaction from Tory backbenchers ranged from raised eyebrows and quiet disdain to outright anger. Some felt they would have had a majority if they hadn't banged on about the Big Society... pre 2009 it was fine to talk about it, but they should have dropped it when they started talking about austerity.... it looked like a cover for slashing away at the state. That made them look like liars and that was difficult.

And there we have our second reason for failure - trying to install the big society in austerity Britain. For the left, the big society was always the Jekyll to the Hyde of state slashing. But even Conservative feathers were ruffled when they realised it wasn't just bureaucrats facing the axe, but swathes of libraries, charities and voluntary organisations.

The third reason for failure was the absence of alternative institutions and ownership models to support big society initiatives in place of the state. It would be a mistake to say there were none - Chris White's Bill on social values opened the door to smaller providers winning government contracts, Neighbourhood Forums were given some backing and Big Society Capital is set to provide some £600m worth of funding, but these initiatives were not nearly deep or radical enough.

"There was a relentless focus on individuals going out and doing great things," says Wind-Cowie." Jesse Norman and Phillip Blond are talking about intermediary institutions and structures rather than the isn't-it great-when-everyone-picks-up-litter approach."

If anything, the government has gone the other way. By cutting out local authority involvement from schools and hospitals, services have become centralised. If something goes wrong, the only place to take the problem is the desk of the secretary of state.

Another big problem for Cameron is his unwillingness to challenge the market. Zero hour contracts and on-your-bike politics don't give people muchspace or stability to pursue the big society vision, and corporate monopolies don't either. As Blond rather astutely puts it:

Cameron subscribes to the rhetoric of a new settlement but he doesn't think through the political economy that requires. You can't subscribe to Thatcherite ideas and then not expect a Thatcherite outcome. If you pursue the same policies as the 1980s, you should expect 1980s outcomes.

The prime minister's final problem was his failure to take the public with him. Research shows that British people love to volunteer and are proud to be active citizens, but this is not a party political thing. When their proud reputation is seen to be used for political advantage, it undermines it. To thrive, the big society needs to be owned and built from people's experiences. It needs leaders and champions; it needs some roots behind the brand. The fact that David Cameron failed to pull this off may well say something about his leadership.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

David Cameron makes a speech on the "big society". Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.