Saturday, 5 February 2011
Is the 'big society' in trouble?
News arrives this this week that Lord Wei, the young and dynamic social entrepreneur who helped to set up Teach First, has scaled back his role as the Government's 'Big Society' tsar. Apparently he's off to (a) earn more money, and (b) 'have more of a life'. Fair enough on an individual level. But his personal decision has also sparked off a good deal of schadenfreude on the Left, keen to point out that all the volunteering, helping and social networking that was going to stand in for the welfare state is really at odds with everyday life - as Labour warned during the 2010 General Election.
This comes as Liverpool, one of Europe's most needy cities in terms of 'Big Society' or 'Big Government' - crying out for all sorts of intervention - pulls out of the pilot project. There was an unconvincing attempt by the Conservative MP Jesse Norman, writer of the book which coined the phrase, to justify this on Any Questions last night. He reckoned that it was all to do with the working out of the policy in detail - always difficult after years of public sector micro-management. The idea that councils having to make cuts of up to half their budget over this Parliament might just be walking away was rubbished. Er... Pull the other one.
To be fair to Lord Wei, he's responded to his critics by saying that he's set up a lot of the machinery and can now be 'hands off'. And that Ministers and advisers never imagined everyone volunteering all the time anyway - just charities doing things more efficiently than local government sometimes does.
But it doesn't look good at all for this most interesting, but really most nebulous, of 'Cameroon' ideas. Which is a pity in a way, because all agree (especially Labour, bigging up the 'Third Sector' for years to help push its own ideas) that this is a good concept in principle. Local people, community groups and charities can indeed have a high, visible, caring impact.
Is it in trouble? Yes. Is this inevitable? Well, no. But this is a government that's made such a presentational pig's ear of its Forestry Commission proposals, lost its spin-doctor-in-chief and has managed to get in a big flap about sudden controversies from school milk to school sport.
It's possible - whisper it - that it's not as good at presentation as many people think.