Analysis: Big society under pressure

Nick Hurd says the flagship agenda is 'alive and well', despite criticism from members of his own party

Big Society under pressure
Big Society under pressure

The government's big society agenda has come under increasing scrutiny in the past week, with senior government advisers warning that the concept is increasingly vulnerable to attacks from the right as well as the left.

Under the big society banner, Prime Minister David Cameron and other government ministers have announced a range of policies, including the Localism Bill, public service reform, the National Citizen Service and a bigger role for the sector in delivering public services. But the benefits of these have yet to be felt.

Since the general election last year, the loudest and most consistent criticism has come from opposition politicians, such as Hazel Blears, who argue that the big society is little more than a cover for government spending cuts and that any ideas of substance have been taken from Labour.

Their criticisms do concern ministers, according to a spokesman for Phillip Blond, director of the think tank ResPublica and a close adviser on the big society agenda. "The opponents of the big society have been very successful in trying to define it as a clandestine 1980s Thatcherite cuts agenda," he says. "If you allow those people who are critical of the agenda to define it, then it makes it very difficult to win the backing of the voluntary sector.

"It's very easy to criticise it by using one snappy line saying that it's all about cuts. It's more difficult to explain that it is about shifting power from the state to the individual - it's a complex idea."

What is perhaps more worrying for Cameron is the concern among those closely involved and those on the right of the Conservative Party.

Paul TwivyPaul Twivy, co-founder of the Big Society Network and an adviser to the government on the big society agenda, told a conference last week that although the fundamental ideas behind the big society were sound, many people struggled to understand them.

"The big society is a raw ideology promoted by the Prime Minister," he said. "It is divisive, even within the Cabinet, and it is increasingly loathed by the public. The problem with the big society is that we've had huge ideologies come and go before."

One source close to the government tells Third Sector that the big society agenda is a focal point for dissent more broadly within the Tory Party, with those on the right of the party blaming it for the party's failure to win an overall majority in the election.

"They think the reason the Tories didn't do well is that they came across as too liberal and 'leftie' - and the big society was at the heart of this. It didn't work on the doorstep.

"I do worry that the criticism might go too far. It's not unusual for concepts like this to be knocked down because the government can't cope with the criticism. But if this happened, the policies would still go ahead - ministers would just stop using the term because it would become too easy to criticise."

The source also claims that government ministers are worried the big society agenda could set the coalition up for a fall. Without it, the thinking goes, few in the press would have been interested when local charities started losing money because of council spending cuts, but now such stories have become more high-profile.

Nick HurdNick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, was quick to play down any criticism when he told the All Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society (and Volunteering) that the big society was "alive and well".

He said: "The Prime Minister has always been very clear that this is about the government illustrating a passionate long-term commitment. When we go further and back it up with substance, in areas such as public service reform and the Big Society Bank, people will start to understand it better. But it is alive and well."

Hurd acknowledged that some in the sector were uncomfortable with the government's use of the term when funding was being cut. "It's inevitable some people will only see it through the prism of cuts," he said. "Some people also feel uncomfortable because the big society is a challenge to them to do more."

Ministers like the big society catch-phrase because it counterbalances the cuts agenda and provides common ground on which many Tories and Liberal Democrats can agree. But if its critics remain vocal, we may be hearing less of it.

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