The big society backlash

It’s surely not a coincidence that the Times, a Murdoch paper, has run a negative lead story on the big society a few days after Andy Coulson, former editor of another Murdoch paper, resigned from his job as the government’s communications director.

After all, political commentators have noted that Coulson was never big on big society and did not always see eye to eye with Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister’s director of strategy, who has been seen as one of the agenda’s chief enthusiasts.

But whatever the source of briefings to the Times, the story is not without substance. Some Conservative MPs have been sceptics about big society since before the election, Labour have always attacked it as a cover for cuts, and it’s getting harder for the government to convince the world that the big society means anything.

One of the biggest problems, as I mentioned in an editorial before Christmas, is that the timing just isn’t right. The cuts in national and local government spending are hitting everyone before big society programmes, such as they are, kick in.

This point was reinforced last week by Justin Davis Smith, chief executive of Volunteering England, who pointed out that a lot of volunteer centres are likely to be closing down because of council cuts before the government’s promised £42.5m volunteering infrastructure fund comes into play.

So perhaps crunch time is looming for the big society. Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, is reported by the Times to have written a 12 page big society call to arms for MPs and Conservative activists, and is expected to meet voluntary sector leaders later this week to respond to their concerns about the cuts.

The big society has had a long honeymoon period because it’s a beguiling notion that many people instinctively respond to. But that period now seems to be over, and something more definite and concrete will be needed if the whole thing is not be swept away in the torrent of bad news on spending cuts.