UK Conservatives claim to be for the Big Society but undercut all the public services that may sustain them, creating political trouble around the project.
A report from the Guardian, excerpts:
“Plans to kickstart David Cameron’s “big society” through a series of Barack Obama-style town hall meetings have been abandoned after the first event ended in acrimonious exchanges over spending cuts.
The Big Society Network, which was organising the so-called town hall tour with support from Whitehall civil servants, says the open format of the meetings “wasn’t really working”. The network is now rethinking its tactics.
News of the tour’s abandonment will be an acute embarrassment for the prime minister as he seeks to use this week’s Conservative party conference to get traction for the big society concept.
The idea of channelling people’s voluntary efforts into public services has so far failed to overcome cynicism that it is a cover for cuts. In particular, the idea has yet to win the crucial backing of activists in the community development sector.
Julian Dobson, editorial director of the sector’s New Start magazine, said: “There are areas around which conversations can happen, but at the moment we are seeing situations where people are feeling assaulted – not surprisingly, because many of them are going to lose their jobs and their livelihoods.”
The town hall tour had been planned as a series of at least 10 meetings across the country. A note sent to voluntary sector leaders in August said: “We will be hosting public meetings to engage with individuals, those active in civil society and social entrepreneurs on all aspects of the big society, but in particular how the network can best support individuals to come together in groups at local level.”
Although the Big Society Network insists it is independent of government, and aims to establish “the largest co-operative or mutual in Britain”, the note was sent by a civil servant at the Communities and Local Government department.
A Freedom of Information Act request by the Guardian has established that five CLG staff have been seconded to the network since June for varying lengths of time. Three of the placements have ended and two continue on a part-time basis. The total cost up to 24 September was £24,000.
The first of the town hall meetings was held last month at Stockport College, Greater Manchester, with further events expected in October in Derby and Sunderland.
About 200 people attended the Stockport meeting, dubbed “Bigstock”, and were addressed by Steve Moore, a prime mover in the network and a specialist conference facilitator. He quickly found himself facing questions about the network’s links with government.
Nicola Headlam, a Stockport resident and researcher at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies in Manchester, who attended the event, said: “It got quite feisty, it’s fair to say. People were asking: ‘Who funds you? Are you funded by the Conservative party?'”
Moore was at one stage forced to say he had paid his own train fare to attend the meeting, according to Headlam, but was unable to answer repeated questions about how the big society could be developed in a climate of severe cuts.
“The mood was quite ugly by the end,” Headlam said. “There was so much anger about what the cuts are going to do to the voluntary sector when, at the same time, the vision of the big society is not being well articulated.”
Moore told the Guardian that the meeting had been “useful”, but confirmed there would be no further town hall events with the same format.”