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Where art thou, "big society"?

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

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

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.