Battle of the Big Society: Tories go on the offensive

It's been a bad week for the PM's pet idea. Now he has to prove it's more than just motherhood and apple pie
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Indy Politics

The gloves are off. David Cameron is to come out fighting in defence of his Big Society dream, launching a week-long drive to persuade the public that the policy is not a sepia-tinted vision of British life used as a cover for devastating spending cuts.

A series of high-profile announcements have been scheduled across the Downing Street media grid after senior figures were spooked by a run of headlines attacking the idea as little more than motherhood and apple pie. Even a photo-op with the PM's wife and the surprise support of Baywatch star David Hasselhoff last week failed to lift the policy from the quagmire.

In an attempt to reinvigorate its fortunes, at least £200m will be promised for the Big Society bank, including raiding bank accounts where as much as £400m has lain dormant for more than 15 years. People will be able to give money to good causes through cash machines, after ministers entered advanced talks with the Link chain. Charities will be offered "lifeline" funding totalling £110m to plug shortfalls caused by deep local authority cuts. Thousands of school leavers will be recruited into the National Citizen Service, while an army of 5,000 community organisers will become the face of the Big Society across the UK.

Francis Maude is the cabinet minister in charge of delivering much of the Big Society agenda. He admitted that the coalition has "a lot still to get across" about the policy, and must counter the perception that it is about volunteers staffing public services starved of funds. "There isn't anything negative about it. It is universally positive," he told The IoS.

But with councils losing millions from central government funding, the Government faces claims that cuts are undermining its good intentions.

The Prime Minister will tomorrow speak at an event hosted by the Big Society Network, which has called in international headhunters Egon Zehnder – where Mr Cameron's best friend Dom Loehnis is a consultant – to find an "evangelist" for the struggling concept as a new managing director.

But Ed Miliband today rounds on the Big Society concept, claiming the speed and depth of the cuts speaks to the "ideological heart" of the traditional Tory right. In an article in The IoS, the Labour leader says the plans reverse the attempts to rebrand Mr Cameron's party, and show its true colours. "As for 'Red Toryism', 'compassionate Conservatism', that funny tree logo, the huskies and 'going green', these were the cloaks they wore to confuse the voters. What we are witnessing now is the recontamination of the Tory party. Recontaminated. In deep blue."

An IoS/ComRes opinion poll shows that half of those surveyed think the Big Society is a "gimmick", and 41 per cent see it as "merely a cover for spending cuts". A quarter say they have never heard of it. Barely one in six people think it will redistribute power from central government to ordinary citizens or that it will foster a culture of volunteerism.

"It's absolutely not just about volunteering," Mr Maude said. It is probably just as well. The Government faced acute embarrassment when its Big Society champion, Lord Wei, reduced his working hours. "We have a lot still to get across," Mr Maude added. "We are talking about the end of the era of the big state and big government – which both ran out of money and failed to solve a lot of deep-seated social problems, and in many cases made them worse and increased dependency – and replacing it with the Big Society. There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state."

For charities struggling now – it has been estimated that council cuts to the sector could total £3bn – a transition fund will help them to stay afloat before being able to bid for lucrative state contracts; for example in getting people back to work, which will be highlighted on Wednesday. "It's worth remembering that 75 per cent of voluntary and taxpayer organisations are getting no taxpayer funding at all. Zilch. So they are not going to be affected by the cuts," Mr Maude said.

More than 10,000 16-year-olds will be invited to sign up to the National Citizen Service – a four-week combination of physical challenge, community work and team-working which Mr Maude said will help foster "a more cohesive national society".

Charmaine Adeyemi, a 16-year-old from Lewisham, south London, who took part in a pilot run by the Challenge Network charity last year, said the experience of mixing with people from other backgrounds and helping out at an elderly people's day centre had changed her life. "I was very stereotypical, saying the elderly are just boring. But they are like us ... they still have young hearts." Ms Adeyemi, who is studying for AS levels in science, drama and sociology, said the course also helped her conquer a fear of heights.

The Big Society fightback comes after a bruising week. Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the outgoing chief executive of the volunteering charity CSV, said cuts risked "destroying" the country's army of volunteers, while Liverpool City Council, handpicked to lead the charge on how power could be handed down to communities, quit the Big Society programme, claiming it had been offered little help. Paul Brant, deputy council leader, said the policy was revealed as "the emperor's new clothes". He added: "There is only so far you can walk down the road before saying this is a naked policy." Liverpool insists it has slashed back-office costs by £30m, but Whitehall spending cuts amount to £90m. "We have no interest in playing politics, we only want to continue the city regeneration," Mr Brant said.

Mr Maude insisted the cuts to councils are "measured", and urged town halls to embark on the unglamorous work of squeezing suppliers, cutting costs, selling unwanted property and abandoning costly IT schemes instead of "doing the easy thing, which is to turn off the tap to voluntary and charitable organisations". A similar approach in central government had saved £3.5bn this year alone.

A White Paper later this month will also clear the way for more staff-owned mutuals to take over the running of public services, which Mr Maude said he found "inspiring".

Reinvigorating the public sector remains a bold ambition at a time when spending is being cut. But Mr Maude admitted that traditional Tories have misunderstood those working on the frontline. "What Conservatives haven't always got in the past is that most people in public service are highly motivated in the public-service ethos. They have a vocation to do what they do. If you are a therapist, you are not doing it predominately for the money, you are doing it because you want to."

Whether the rest of the country can be similarly inspired remains to be seen.

Q&A: What you need to know about the PM's big idea

The Big Society. I've heard of it ...

That's a start. More than a quarter of people haven't.

Whose idea was it first?

Officially David Cameron's, but guru Steve Hilton pulls the strings. Strategic genius or political liability depending on who you talk to, Hilton pads around No 10 in his socks, extolling the virtues of shifting power from Whitehall to communities, making volunteering easier and making public services more competitive, involving private firms and charities.

After the cuts, will there be any charities left?

Only a quarter of charities get state funding, ministers say, and funding will be offered until big-money public-sector contracts are released. Before that, expect heart-rending headlines and pleas for donations/volunteers.

I haven't got time to volunteer – I have to put tea on the table and look after my elderly parents.

Officials stress volunteering is the least critical "pillar" holding Big Society aloft – anyway, volunteer numbers are up.

What's happening in my area?

It depends. Gone is everything dictated uniformly from Whitehall, so your experience will vary enormously depending on where you live.

Ah, so it's a return to 1990s-style postcode lotteries?

Sort of. Ministers admit it will be messy, but say it means "going with the grain of human nature, not against it".

So it's not really one BIG Society?

No. You could say it's "lots of smalls", but that sounds like a discount lingerie store. The brilliance and folly of the "Big Society" are that it stands for everything and yet nothing. Most policy ideas sent to No 10 claim to "fit the Big Society agenda". Even when pulling power to the centre.

So do I agree with it?

Yes. Basically everyone does. The debate is more about practicality than philosophy. How can charities run services if cuts wipe them out? Why give councils more power but less money? Easy hits, but few dispute that central statist control went too far under successive governments.

Isn't it just evil old Tories demolishing the state?

Liverpool's clash with a Conservative PM has some nostalgia – and Ed Miliband says the Tories are stepping aside as they slash and burn. But the real argument is about the need to eradicate the deficit over four years, and that will never be done by councils ditching the choccie biscuits.

Matt Chorley

What does the Big Society mean to you?

'It is about all the things we currently pay people to do. It's an insult to the thousands of volunteers who work in their communities.'

Paul Kenny, General secretary, GMB

'It should be about communities coming together, people volunteering and democratic engagement. The Government has... used it to make cuts.'

Aaron Porter, President, National Union of Students

'What we lack is any articulate definition. Is it simply volunteering? Or is it devolving decision-making to the people whose lives are affected by such decisions?'

Sir Menzies Campbell, Former Lib Dem leader

'I think it's a good idea to give power to people. It's always a good thing for the community to run services. For me, anything that helps creativity is good.'

Yolanda Brown, Musician

'It's a catchphrase that sums up what we should be doing already. It is a reminder that we should care about the people who live around us.'

Sarah Beeney, Presenter, Property Ladder

'Cuts. The Big Society has become a brand that is synonymous with cuts, rather than the empowering vision the propaganda promised.'

Peter Hain, Labour spokesman for Wales

'I recently discovered I'm a "Red Tory".... Hopefully, Cameron's Big Society won't degenerate into a cop-out of ultimate central accountability.'

Mike Batt, Songwriter and composer

'It is a fictional bit of bullshit created by a politician who doesn't know what he's talking about. What does it mean? That we should all join a hiking club?'

Michael Winner, Film director

'It's a vague notion dreamt up by rich boys from Oxford and Cambridge. England's voluntary sector is working well. Big Society is just an abstract concept.'

Nigel Farage, Leader, Ukip

'It reminds us caring can come from charities, families and the private sector as well as from the state. It seeks to... look after those who need help.'

John Redwood, Conservative MP