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Steve Richards: Size should not be everything in Cameron's vision of a modern state

I have no doubt that he is genuinely interested in redistributing power

Since becoming leader of his party David Cameron has delivered more speeches on the theme of poverty and the delivery of public services than any other issue. From his victory speech in the leadership contest at the end of 2005 to his widely reported lecture this week, Cameron has made his case with persistence. All the vaguely familiar phrases that arise from his leadership, such as the "post bureaucratic age" and the need for "social responsibility", connect to this theme. His determined navigation across thorny terrain provokes several questions. Is he serious or opportunistic? Has he worked out how he plans to implement his vision? Will the plans work?

The first question is posed more than any of the others and yet is the easiest to answer. It does not matter whether he is being opportunistic. Of course political positioning is a consideration for any leader. No leader of the opposition utters words in public that he predicts will harm his party, although some have done so unintentionally. For the Conservatives to be seen debating ways of alleviating poverty is evidently convenient for Cameron in the same way that Tony Blair wooed business leaders in the build-up to the 1997 election. The Conservatives were seen as uncaring and Labour was regarded until the mid-1990s as being anti-business. There are unavoidable political motives when party leaders make their moves.

They are irrelevant in terms of judging what they say. Curiously what they say is what matters, the words that are declared in public. Perhaps to their surprise, and often to ours, statements made in opposition determine the course of a government. When Blair told business leaders that he would not increase public spending for two years, or put up their income tax, he meant it. When he pretended that he "loved the pound" he found that his words bound him in government, making it impossible for him to join the euro. Cameron has made much of poverty in opposition and will have no choice but to make much of it if he wins.

For what it is worth I have no doubt that Cameron is genuinely interested in the themes around redistribution of power and that some of those who work for him are enthused by this topic, which is why it has not gone away as a theme since 2005. Cameron's office was organising day-long seminars on this policy area three years ago, attended by shadow cabinet members, most of Cameron's team, members of the voluntary sector and local councillors. I attended several of them and they were serious events, not fleeting gimmicks as part of a superficial re-branding exercise.

The essence of the message is that people will behave responsibly if they are given responsibilities and that the role of government is to act as an enabler, encouraging communities to act together in a variety of forms and deploying the voluntary sector to deliver policy objectives. To the surprise of some of his aides, Cameron's party conference speech was criticised in some quarters for its onslaught against the state. I was surprised that they were surprised in the sense that it was an attack on the state. But equally, the bewilderment of his previous sympathetic critics was not justified. This had been his theme for four years. In his lecture this week Cameron went out of his way to make a more rounded case without veering away from his main argument. In his opening paragraph he made clear: "A simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life unbidden is wrong." I am told that his senior adviser, Steve Hilton, made sure this point was reiterated three times in the opening few minutes, emphasising that the state had a role.

Yet Cameron's hostility to the state was still at the heart of the speech. He blamed it for Britain's "atomised society", quite a claim as the country became more atomised in the 1980s when the state became less active. The 1980s barely featured in Cameron's speech. Instead, with that decade conveniently edited out, he has hit upon a third way in relation to the state, combining hostility with a qualified recognition that it has a vital role to play.

Some of those close to Cameron have given me examples of how they see the new role for the state. In terms of delivery they offer one hypothetical example. A Tory government would give cash to an organisation such as the Young Foundation, an independent body that liaises with a range of groups in the voluntary sector and beyond in devising new ways of delivering services. Yesterday the Foundation was hosting a seminar linking policies to social wellbeing, a theme that interests Labour and the Cameron/Osborne entourage in different ways. A Conservative government would not be prescriptive with the Young Foundation about means but would judge it and others on outcomes. On a more local level it would publish booklets giving advice on how a local community could organise on behalf of itself, whether it is parents setting up schools or tenants forming more active associations.

These examples are revealing. They are tiny and yet ambitious. The role of the state is still a significant one. If it provides the funds it inevitably has an interest in how the funds are spent, or at least it should do. The state might be stepping back in some respects, but it is still spending taxpayers' money. Cameron envisages a different role for the state, but it is not necessarily a smaller one as he insists, and nor should it be.

I do not believe that Cameron and his entourage embarked on this exercise as a crude way of saving money. They began it during the phase when they were apparently committed to the Government's spending levels. But inevitably funding is an issue now they are pledged to make deeper cuts than Labour. After Cameron's lecture this week the first question was from a senior figure in the voluntary sector. He welcomed much of the substance, but wanted assurances that a Conservative government would fund these initiatives with sufficient cash. Cameron was evasive in his response. His u-turn on public spending last year puts these proposals in a different, more ominous context even if they were under consideration long before the context changed.

A precise example highlights the tension between support and disdain for the state. In his lecture Cameron declared that a Conservative government would retain Sure Start, an example of state activity that has enhanced the lives of many families on low income. But he added as an almost casual aside that he wanted charities to become more involved and for the service to target the poor more effectively. He did not specify how this would be achieved. Would the activities of the voluntary sector be in addition to that of existing state provision or an alternative? How do they connect to those that have turned away from society?

As Tony Blair and Gordon Brown used to reflect openly, families that turn to Sure Start are already engaged, or want to become so. Sometimes dealing with these families is challenging enough, without the additional pressure of signing up those that have no wish or inclination to be helped. Charities might make headway, but as an addition to the service and not an alternative.

To some extent, what Cameron is proposing is not especially unusual. Geoff Mulgan, who runs the Young Foundation, is working closely with the Obama administration in the US and indeed in China on similar projects. As the Cabinet minister Liam Byrne has pointed out, the current government has encouraged an expansion in the voluntary sector, not least since Cameron declared his interest, one of several examples in which he has reshaped the priorities of an insecure government.

They cannot be a replacement for the state if the state is the main source of funding and elected national politicians accept a responsibility for alleviating poverty, as they must. Neil Kinnock first raised the prospect of an enabling state in the mid-1980s. Cameron brings it to life, but he threatens to kill it off by his accompanying hostility to the state, one that manages still to define a pivotal role for government. Tony Blair was a great navigator of third ways, but none as unresolved as this one.