Labour and the Conservatives are vying to create armies of community organisers in a contest to be seen as the true “Big Society” party of grassroots campaigning.
The government wants the public to buy up disused pubs or failing post offices, to take over services now provided by councils, or to push forward community housing schemes.
Yet some critics now say the Big Society’s most vivid manifestation is the way communities are uniting to fight proposed closures to libraries and other public services due to the cuts.
Phillip Blond, head of the ResPublica think-tank, admitted this week that he had held crisis talks in December with Steve Hilton, head of policy at Downing Street and a fellow architect of the policy.
“The drive for cuts and deficit reduction is perhaps running too fast to give people the chance to take over the state and create conditions for a civic economy,” said Mr Blond. “The Big Society agenda is still not widely grasped or shared across all departments.” A “Big Society roadshow” to sell the idea was cancelled last autumn after the first event in Stockport was derailed by hecklers.
Labour has confirmed that in March the Miliband brothers will make their first joint appearance since Ed beat David to the leadership of the Labour party last autumn, in an attempt to clear the air after the fratricidal contest.
The pair, flanked by Arnie Graff, a US community organiser who inspired Barack Obama in the 1980s, will relaunch the “Movement for Change” originally set up by David Miliband last summer.
The movement will train up to 10,000 activists to co-ordinate community campaigns, using £250,000 from Labour donor Lord Sainsbury of Turville. The plan is markedly similar to that envisaged by David Cameron, who has promised to train a “neighbourhood army” of 5,000 community organisers in an attempt to install Big Society values in Britain. “The leftwing don’t have a monopoly on this kind of idea,” said one government insider.
Meanwhile, ministers are starting to take the blame for many of the local decisions which they had hoped to avoid by delegating powers downwards via their “localism” agenda.
This was starkly illustrated last week when an international summit at Downing Street was disrupted by questions about Riven Vincent, the mother of a disabled child in south Gloucestershire who may have to be taken into care.
The story resonated not only because Mr Cameron had a disabled son, who died in 2009, but as he had reassured Ms Vincent that he would protect the welfare of disabled children.
Charities have warned there will be more such consequences of the coalition’s decision to slash councils’ main grant by 28 per cent while cutting funds formerly ring-fenced.
While Mr Cameron has not intervened in the Vincent case, there have been several examples of ministers trying to prod councils to behave in a certain way despite their “localism” rhetoric; for example, by trying to stop them printing news freesheets.
Concerns are growing in Whitehall. Sir Gus O’Donnell, head of the civil service, has appointed Sir Bob Kerslake, a senior mandarin, to set up a “localism group” of other mandarins to “look at the accountabilities issue”.
Ms Vincent may be one of the first high-profile casualties of the cuts but is unlikely to be the last.
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