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The sham of Cameron’s “big society”

The big society is little more than a buzz phrase.

"I don't want to abolish government," the US conservative activist Grover Norquist once remarked. "I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." In the US, the Republican right's obsession with "big government" has now reached near-hysterical proportions.

Here in the UK, few British conservatives would go as far as to fantasise about drowning the government. The ultra-libertarian, anti-tax spirit of the Tea Party has yet to catch on. In fact, a key pillar of the Conservative Party's rebranding strategy was the decision to ring-fence spending on the NHS and foreign aid. But make no mistake: the Tories remain committed to rolling back the state, reducing it in size and scope under the pretext of deficit reduction.

David Cameron's speech to his party conference in Manchester last year blamed "big government", not the banks, for having "got us into this mess". And consider the rather revealing comments that he made at a public meeting in Birmingham in August. A fire brigade worker in the audience had asked the Prime Minister to "pledge" that he would restore public spending levels once the books were balanced and "these austere times are over". Cameron refused to do so, and instead replied: "I think we should be trying to avoid that approach."

Brazen hypocrisy

Meanwhile, Cameron extols the virtues of the "big society", by which he means the empowerment of local communities and the "redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall". But the big society is little more than a "buzz phrase", as the Tory children's minister Tim Loughton conceded earlier this month, because "most people don't know what the big society really means, least of all the unfortunate ministers who have to articulate it".

For "big society", read small state. The Prime Minister, however, is adamant that the two are unrelated. "The big society is not about creating cover for cuts," he declared in his party conference speech in Birmingham in October. “I was going on about it years before the cuts."

“He believes in it and it excites him," a source close to the Prime Minister tells me. The spending cuts may be a "challenge" for the big society vision, "but there is money for savings and a lot of local services are failing".

But the big society is a con. First, there is the brazen hypocrisy. The Tories speak of localism and "people power", but such pious claims are undermined by their centralising tendencies. The coalition's policy on "free schools" and academies, for example, disenfranchises parents and instead puts huge power in the hands of a single individual in Whitehall - the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. He decides which projects go ahead and he is in control of the purse strings.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times has reported on "radical government plans" to "kneecap" local authorities under which "all state schools in England will be directly funded from Whitehall for the first time". "What happened to decentralisation?" asked Les Lawrence, the Tory cabinet member for schools on Birmingham City Council. "This is centralised control of school funding."

Second, there is the exaggeration. Are people clamouring to be "empowered"? Cameron has said he "profoundly" believes that people want to be more involved; Phillip Blond, the self-styled red Tory of the ResPublica think tank, tells me there is a "massive demand" from local communities to run public services. But, again, consider education. Michael Gove claimed that 700 parent groups were interested in setting up their own free schools; it now turns out, however, only 16 such schools will open next year.

Polling conducted by Ipsos MORI in 2009 found only one in 20 of the public wanted "involvement" in the provision of local services, whereas one in four merely wanted "more of a say" and half just wanted "more information". People have lives, jobs, families; few have the time or inclination to take responsibility for running schools or swimming pools.

Third, there is the impact of the cuts. How will communities be "empowered" and engaged if there is little money left to fund them? Some of the biggest cuts to public spending are occurring at a grassroots level. The Chancellor's Spending Review unveiled a 28 per cent cut to local government funding over the next four years - down from £28bn to £21bn. Yet Osborne devoted only 255 of the 9,619 words in his Spending Review statement to those cuts, or what he glibly described as "an unavoidably challenging settlement" for local government. "Challenging"? The normally cautious accountants at KPMG have warned that the £7bn shortfall could see some councils facing "financial collapse". Their counterparts at PricewaterhouseCoopers are predicting up to half of the expected 490,000 job losses in the public sector will come from local government.

Shabby national

“We're concerned that councils were asked to take the biggest hit of any part of the public sector," Richard Kemp, leader of the Liberal Democrats in local government, tells me. Kemp says he is "cynical" about the so-called big society, adding: "We're delighted the government talks localism, but it has to walk localism, too." He is anxious that the cuts in local spending are being "frontloaded" and will "inevitably" result in cuts to "frontline services".

But here's the dilemma for the opposition: it might very well be Labour councils cutting those jobs and services next year. The party hopes to gain control of up to 50 councils across the country in the local elections next May. The Chancellor has set a trap for Labour - one that is impossible to avoid.

Local authorities have already begun trying to shift the blame for the cuts back to the coalition. Take Labour-controlled Camden Council in London. Posters at bus stops across the borough state: "National government spending cuts mean tough decisions for Camden's future."

The "tough decisions" in Camden, I'm told, could extend to job losses for council officers, librarians and staff working in sports centres, and cuts to youth centres and luncheon clubs. Thirty-two councils have admitted to turning off street lights to save money. Others are going even further and considering cuts to social work and child protection budgets. To say the future looks gloomy is an understatement.

“Services will disappear," says Kemp. "Everything will be shabbier, it won't be as bright." Forget "big government"; all hail the "big society".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron