Cameron needs to start getting the party’s rank and file excited about the big society

The big society was the big theme of the fringe events at the Conservative Party conference this year.
All kinds of groups managed to shoehorn the phrase into their events: health charities, think tanks, social enterprise groups, local government bodies, housing firms and welfare-to-work providers all used the magic words. So did Starbucks, by hosting a debate on big brands and the big society.
David Cameron’s speech to the conference gave the big society a similar prominence. I counted nine uses of it.
But the reaction from the audience suggested party members were less enthusiastic about the idea than the Prime Minister was.
Cameron had, as expected, received loud applause for his statements on foreign policy, the deficit, Labour and Europe. But his big society announcements, including a Citizen University and International Citizen Service (which were among a very small number of new policy announcements in the speech) got a lukewarm response.
Granted, those statements were not designed to be rabble-rousing in the same way that statements on the Lockerbie bomber and Labour’s failings were. But they seemed to pass by unnoticed, with quiet, polite applause at best.
They seemed to have been written into the speech as padding, or – worse – a way of bringing in some light, happy policy news when the spending review was preventing the government from announcing anything else.
The big society was undoubtedly popular among the policy types, the think tanks and the lobbyists at the conference. But it’s not about them: the philosophy is based on grass-roots, local activists getting passionate about an issue and taking action. If it’s going to catch on, Cameron needs to start getting the party’s rank and file excited.