David Cameron launched the Big Society fightback yesterday. The Prime Minister's defence of his idea, before an audience of social entrepreneurs, was not lacking in passion. He emphatically denied the charge that the phrase was merely a cover for spending cuts, saying he would be pushing the idea "whatever is happening to public spending". He declared that while cutting the deficit was his political duty, building the Big Society was his central "mission" in politics.
Yet the Prime Minister eschewed the opportunity to define more precisely what the slogan means. "What this is all about," he told his audience, "is giving people more power and control to improve their lives and communities." Mr Cameron could repeat this every day between now and the next election and the public would still be in the dark over its practical meaning.
In the absence of any clearer definition, the Big Society has come to be associated with encouraging volunteering and the provision of local services by the charity sector. If this is indeed what the Big Society means to Mr Cameron, he is in serious trouble.
Local-authority grants make up a large chunk of the funding of many charities and volunteer groups. And this source of funding is being squeezed by local councils, which are themselves facing severe front-loaded cuts in their support from Whitehall. This is a consequence of the Coalition's choice to eradicate the structural deficit over the next four years. It was the scale and speed of the fiscal squeeze from the centre that prompted Liverpool Council to pull out of the Coalition's Big Society pilot scheme earlier this month.
Mr Cameron pointed out yesterday that 75 per cent of charities do not get any money from the state. Yet the larger charities (and the ones that provide the most valued local services) do. And many of these organisations are facing financial crisis and potential closure as the cuts are implemented.
The Prime Minister evaded the central criticism made by leading members of the voluntary sector in recent weeks that, worthwhile though it might be to encourage volunteerism, the programme cannot be successfully implemented at a time of savage public spending cuts. But though Mr Cameron did not confront the charge, others in his party have been less shy about doing so. Some on the Tory right have suggested that certain charities have grown unhealthily reliant on state funding and that it is no bad thing that they are now facing extinction. Others in the party have urged Mr Cameron to switch the focus of the Big Society from encouraging volunteers and charities to providing opportunities for businesses to play a greater role in the delivery of public services.
The latter look likely to get their way. As we report today, the US firm LSSI is hoping to take over the management of some of the 400 local libraries in the UK threatened with closure. Mr Cameron needs to be wary. The Big Society is in danger of being interpreted not only as cover for cuts, but cover for privatisation too.
It is true that the Big Society Bank, unveiled yesterday, will have £300m to lend to charities and voluntary groups. That is certainly welcome and could mean a stay of execution for some groups. But local councils need to find savings of many times that sum. The Government is giving with one hand while taking away with the other.
Mr Cameron is facing an immense fight to rescue his political mission. At the moment, the Prime Minister looks as if he is commanding the Big Society to grow while squeezing the life out of those who he needs to make it happen.