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Big Society looking thin after Cameron’s Liverpool trip

Posted on 20 July 2010 | 2:07am

As David Cameron works away in the US – gee what a Big Society that is – let us consider what we learned from yesterday’s (re)launch of his Big Society back home.

We learned that his favourite Grange Hill character was Gripper Stebson, a bully and a racist. Even for a member of the Bullingdon club like Cameron, I doubt that Gripper really is, as the PM said, ‘one of my role models in life.’

If this was a joke, it wasn’t a very good one. Far more likely is that as the Big Society Express sped (ish) towards Liverpool, and Dave saw on his itinerary that he was due to meet Grange Hill creator Phil Redmond, he thought he ought to have a fave GH character for small talk and man-of-people throwaway banter purposes. And so, courtesy of an aide with kids or more likely a laptop and internet access, Gripper entered the PM’s life.

We also learned that Liverpool was not very prepared for the arrival of his Big Society Big Idea.

One of four areas designated as BS testbeds, a spokesman for the city’s council said ‘we don’t know how it’s going to work. We have been given no information about this. You might want to ask No 10 or Eric Pickles, the minister in charge.’

Mr Pickles’ mantra was that the BS was about getting ‘more for less’, which sounded suspiciously like it was all somewhat wrapped up in the cuts agenda, something Dave denied vehemently.

But Liverpool was not alone in its ignorance about what it was meant to do as a ‘vanguard community’ and what if any funding would be available to help.

Ah, funding … Did I mention funding? On this, we learned from one voluntary group after another that funding problems are growing not receding. We learned from Liverpool’s council leader that he found it confusing to have a recent £10m cut preceding this ‘invitation’ to spearhead the BS Big IDea.

We learned too that Francis Maude, a member of the Cabinet, has been writing round colleagues warning of the potential clash between BS Big Idea and the government taking cash from wherever it can find it.

We also learned there will be some fancy new bank that will dole out cash to groups wanting to be part of the Big Society, and it will all come from dormant bank accounts. (Oh, I wish I had a grand for every time I heard ministers in the last government say why can’t we use money from dormant bank accounts? …. I can’t remember all of the answers the mandarins came up with, but memo to Dave, Eric and Francis — don’t bank your Big Society house on dormant bank accounts.

I know Barack Obama now takes precedence over Gripper Stebson, but I think a bit of flesh on the BS bones back home is called for. Otherwise Liverpool and the other vanguard communities are going to think they’ve just been used in a rather meaningless Cameroonian stunt, while George Osborne gets on with the task of cutting services provided by the State to the bone.

*** Buy Prelude to Power here at Amazon.

  • Harold Gorman

    I watched all of Cameron’s speech and read it again this morning. I wonder if he believes what he is saying, and how he can square it with what he is doing elsewhere. The desire to cut the state down to size is so strong, and if he seriously thinks the slack can be taken up with this mish mash of wish wash, God help him.

  • Jonathan Leake

    Gripper Stebson should be role model for chief whip, not PM. Great name

  • Carl H

    Big Society big Bullingdon blah blah blah bollox

  • StewartP

    It wouldn’t have taken much to google Gripper. The first site I clicked on gave the following description – “Well, basically a screwed-up individual never happy unless he was making someone else’s life a misery”. A strange role model.

  • Nathan

    Maybe he was trying to emulate Obama’s being a fan of the character Omar Little from The Wire.

  • Chris lancashire

    I suppose this constant carping and sniping makes you feel better but you really aren’t doing yourself any favours as a serious “communicator” or “strategist”.

    Cheap, nasty asides are no substitute for reasoned political argument.

  • Jim Metcalf

    If one of Rory Stewart’s plans go ahead it looks like there will be tax subsidised drinking up in the poor, remote Eden Valley – with a ‘community buy out of a local pub’ funded by the Big Society. There is already a thriving community pub at Hesket Newmarke and this was supported with development grants. OK fair enough – but when the axe is swinging like it is can this be a priority ? How about a bid to help Burnley FC ?

  • Mark Wright

    Gripper Stebson? He’s more like Mr Bronson.

    You have to admire Dave’s tenacity in digging up this curio from the last general election. It’s the equivalent of Gordon Brown holding a press conference to say he’s standing down from politics and going on tour with Elvis!

    Seriously though, the ‘Big Society’ is one of the most half-baked, ill-thought out ideas to have come from a major political party in recent times. People don’t buy it because they know the motivation behind it. Cuts. Why should volunteer groups step into the breach left by a government currently engaged in a vicious cuts programme?

    Of course, with the amount of people lined up to lose their jobs I’m sure Dave is hoping there will many ‘volunteers’ to join his BS vision.

    Dave talks about tough times ahead and how people will need to pull together. Fine. Times are tough. He’s asking the voluntary sector to step up to the plate and take over some essential services in the years to come and for people to volunteer and take part out of the goodness of their heart (or lack of employment).

    But what about when the economy picks up again? Are these responsibilities taken on in this supposed time of strife to be relinquished by the voluntary sector to return to their rightful place as part of the government’s portfolio? I doubt it. What will be left is a society that will have been left to fend for itself. When the good times come these will be the people left behind. Once again. As usual.

    And if a particular part of Dave’s ‘Big Society’ won’t have prospered as well as they’d hoped then Dave can turn around and say “Well it’s your fault, you obviously don’t care enough about yourselves.”

    Heard the slogan yet?

    “The Big Society – Does The Work So We Don’t Have To.”

    What a load of BS.

  • Adrienne

    For a minute there I thought you had said Barack Obama now takes credit cards.

  • cornish pasty

    Where are the pilot projects? How can the government launch these massive schemes with no examples of how it will work? There are millions of volunteers already, but those of us who work with volunteers know that is rarely escalates into something dynamic and change-driven: because running massive projects takes huge amounts of time and skills, and most people with the necessary skills are being paid to employ them!

    Volunteers are bloody hard work – and lots come with mental health or other needs. There is also a huge turnaround of people, because if paid staff are organising volunteers, then the volunteers will have a massive sense of entitlement – and why shouldn’t they? Paid staff also get sick of being kicked from all directions – from volunteers who feel that the staff should be working harder because they are being paid, and from their managers who want to know why they can’t corall their volunteers to be the sort of dynamic visionaries that Cameron seems to think are lurking on every corner. So paid staff don’t often stay long, either – and the massive turnarounds on both sides very rarely result in anything getting done… So, pilot projects, hmm??? Where?

  • olli issakainen

    I had always thought that the Loony Party´s policy of planting crocodiles to the Thames was the silliest ever idea proposed by a political party. And that no one would be able to beat it. But then, out the blue, came David Cameron with his “visionary” Big Society!
    But do not get me wrong. I have nothing against people taking more responsibility for themselves or the others. In fact, I am for it. But I just do not believe that Big Society would work in practice.
    In order it to function properly there had to be, to start with, a 35-hour workweek in Britain. And people would also had to be suddenly good and altruistic.
    I have been involved in the Boy Scouts movement, and I know how difficult it is to get volunteers. People always ask how much they would be paid.
    So, I recommend Citizen Cameron to leave the revolution to Wolfie Smith.
    Power to the People? Perhaps not. Freedom for Tooting would be a more realistic aim!

  • Fennie

    BS has other connotations – entirely correct in this case!. Relying on volunteers is madness – in any community there are normally a small number of people who get involved in everything; they are not respresentative of the community; they’re in no way accountable. BS is a recipe for chaos

  • Sally

    Big Society. I think it’s a great idea. Just hope he takes it to the next stage:
    Why don’t we all get together, use some of our resources & pay for all the services (such as schools, heathcare, help for the elderly & libraries) we need for our communities to function well.Funding could be raised in the community through taxes, perhaps those who are well off could pay a bit more than those who are not so well off. We could then elect people who are accountable to look after these services & pay the professional people amongst us who are best able to run them day to day? Sometimes they could even work with & provide support to local voluntary groups. We could call this system something catchy like Local Government.
    Just an idea, somebody may have thought of it before.

  • sarah

    Cameron does not remind me of Gripper. He reminds me of my dad at various weddings over the years trying to keep up with us young(ish) things by looking groovey and getting down to the tunes. Both make me want to laugh and die in equal measure. (Although I have to say I really, really, really like my dad, so the comparison does not hold up to too much scrutiny).
    But when Dave joined the Big Society dance floor to strut his stuff yesterday, I don’t think he realised how full it already is. And with really fab dancers! In my home town we have community groups everywhere. The results are fab – two new community parks and a brand new leisure centre, directly as a result of campaigning, fund raising etc. We have toddler groups, people campaigning for a big name supermarket, people campaigning against one. We have everything from volounteer drivers for the elderly, a group trying to find a site for a BMX/Skateboarding park to breastfeeding support groups. And I’m sure I don’t live in utopia.
    So what the hell was he on about with all that bilge to the already converted? Is he really about to wave a wand and make all of that easier? That would be nice and very, very welcome.
    But at best I fear that once the accomplished dancers stop wondering what the hell his moves are, they’ll just carry on dancing and leave him well alone. (I hope that not too many will leave the floor altogether though. The desire not to be seen with him will be understandable, but lamentable.)
    But the cynic in me fears something worse. The fact that The Big Society was what he always wanted to do should concern, not reassure. Tied in to the idelogical destruction of the public sector and it’s truly cringe worthy. Think of all the jobs that councils and local authorities could be encouraged to “volounteer out!” Street cleaning, school crossing patrols, lunch time supervisers, classroom assistants – I bet there is an endless potential list.
    And then we can have the “painful descision which we can blame on the Labour Government” that people won’t get Job Seekers allowance unless they volounteer. Imagine how good those PCT managers are going to be at volounteer planning for their local councils? And all for the cost of Job Seekers allowance!! I hope this is all cynical make believe, but they are the Condems and I really do think that anything might be possible.
    But I hope that Dave realises that in terms of dancing, you either have it or you don’t. To do it properly with flare and passion is just not something you can force.

  • Chris

    At least we now know why Dave is always on about the need to “grip” problems!

  • Jam

    I may not like Labours constant belittling of every single idea/suggestion/action of this new government.. but on this, I have to agree. Sounds like a terrible idea that no one is going to get involved in.

  • Richard Brittain

    Great blog post. Haha, I love the BS abbreviation. Dave is looking increasing limp, tired and ineffectual in his performances. I confess to voting for Cameron in the recent general election, mainly because he seemed a decent man and I wanted to see what the change would bring. But whereas Tony Blair rose to the challenge and was extremely vibrant and energetic in office, David Cameron seems the exact opposite. It looks like the job is too big for him. The Big Society speech was supposed to be his climax, but he seemed to struggle to deliver anything meaningful or heartfelt. He seems to have lost his charisma.

    Alastair Campbell for Prime Minister!

  • Patrick O’Gara

    It seems from Manningham Buller today, that Tone and Co were not only responsible for the thousands of deaths in Iraq, but the ones in London, too.
    Well done!
    (I am not mad enough to think you will run this. I would just like to think you might read it.)

  • Graham Jones

    Does this make Osbourne Zammo McGuire? As he keeps doing the wrong thing, no matter how many times he’s told.

    Let’s be honest, this Big Society thing was made up by spin-doctors at the start of the election. It is now being utilised as a distraction, to the savage cuts Osbourne is unleashing.

    It’s also a cynical attempt to claim credit for the sterling work carried out by charities at the next election. By re-branding charity, he will claim it’s the result of Big Society, and say we don’t need big government.

    The problem with Cameron is, he’s filled with an ideology, that should’ve been left in the Dickensian era. He wants to return Digital Britain to the Dark Ages, and put society back in the gutter – and the Liberals are there to help him, just like the old days.

  • Patrick James

    I’ve just put a letter in the 1st class post to my MP (Conservative) about The Academies Bill and how it will enable creation of faith academies which will be allowed to impoverish children’s education by limiting their outlook to a religious one.

    The text for my letter came from the BHA website, they suggest emailing it but I have sent a letter because I still think they are more powerful.

  • Maureen Henry

    Genuinely surprised that anyone thought Cameron ever had charisma but am glad that he has lost it.

  • Alan Quinn

    I’ll let the debate about Gripper and Zammo (nice one Jonesy) go on without me. Ally, any chance of one of your books, autographed for a charity do I’m organising in October?
    As you’re probably in Manchester for the conference I’ll even come down and pick it up myself to save on P&P. The charity we’re helping out is the Army Benevolent Fund.

  • David Kingston

    The big society requires communities to have the capacity to replace government functions. The poorest communities need the greatest support and have the least capacity. Middle class communities which would succed anyway will tell Dave what a success it is whist deprived areas will continue to fail and Dave and chums will blame others for their failure (if they actually care).

    On the Grange Hill theme. Well done to Phil Redmond for appearing to be Dave’s chum and then dropping him in it with Gripper. My brother went to an independent school (I refuse to call it a public school as it was not open to the public in general) and believed the show was realistic. It was nothing like the comp I went to or any of the 20+ schools I have worked in since. Surely he does not identify with Gripper because of his Eton experiences!

  • Nicky

    @ Richard B: glad you’ve seen the light regarding Cameron, though it’s a pity you had to vote for him first. It’s a bit like that old song by the Swinging Blue Jeans:

    Feeling better, cause I’m over you
    I’ve learned my lesson, it left a scar
    Now I see how you really are

    You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good
    Baby, you’re no good (I’m gonna say it again)
    You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good
    Baby, you’re no good

    How true that is.

    I suppose it’s not surprising you got taken in by him. Lord Ashcroft spent several million pounds trying to convince the electorate to vote for Dave. Some of the millions he avoided paying in tax! Strangely enough, before the Election, St Vince Cable was wringing his hands over that.

  • Simon B

    And you,of course, never suggested any popular cultural references for Tony to use.

  • Anna

    Cameron’s Big Society (he says it’s not to save money, Eric Pickles says it is) will fund either a) the well-organised, sharp-elbowed articulate middle class who will know how to pitch for funds for their pet enthusiasms or b) the proseltysing religious organisations whose love will come with strings attached.

    Doesn’t the fool know that private charity on its own failed? That’s why the welfare state was invented. Doesn’t he know that needs are now infinitely greater and more complex than in the past e.g. many babies that would have died in Victorian times now survive but need care? Doesn’t he realise that volunteering is not enough: as well as time, you need sophisticated skills and expertise to organise, manage budgets etc. How many people have the time, energy and commitment to work for nothing (or even for pay) after meeting the needs of their employers and families?

  • Robert Jackson


    The first Baron Rank (Joseph Arthur) would have cautioned Cameron not to go there.

  • Graham Jones

    Deary me, it looks like we are in the middle of meltdown today for the coalition. A day which has seen the Prime Minister, and the Deputy Prime Minister screw-up so badly, that Michael Gove has put the prozac back in the bathroom cabinet. It was bad enough watching a man at PMQ’s try to answer questions he simply doesn’t understand; but to watch the man who runs the country, insult all the people who lived and served through the Second World War, is simply off the chart.
    It puts Bigotgate into perspective.

    At this rate, the country will be begging Gordon to come back by Christmas time. Gordon had his flaws, but he never managed to champion a TV character who was a racist bully and insult all the heroes of the Second WW, in the space of 48 hours.

    Then there’s the Boy Clegg. Now, he may believe the Iraq war was illegal, but as the Deputy PM, representing the coalition government at the dispatch box, he had no right to state a personal view over a legal matter. He doesn’t seem to grasp the fact he has obligations in office, or how to behave in government, (but what else can we expect from an self-indulgent little git, who finished third in the election, and deliberately lied to the electorate). Let’s face it Nick, your out of your depth. Time to go.

  • alan

    For this “policy” to be relaunched so many times i do wonder why he cant see that no one cares about it,other than his pathetic need to cut,cut,cut Cameron is frankly turning into a joke of a PM and sadly the jokes on us.

    Far from re branding itself the tory party has returned far nastier than ever with men so detached from reality running the show now its frightening,what little film i saw of relaunch number 3 i didn’t see anyone passing by,no scallies,old women passing by nothing,just him jumping into a car with Redmond a man who’s crappy tv show set Liverpool back years i might add,it looked like a ghost town.

    Ahh gripper stebson a character so venomous he was almost censored by the BBC back in the day wasn’t he? if that was our PM’s boyhood hero well god help us all and as BS yes i would call it that.

  • Patrick O’Gara

    I take it all back. Well done again. Here’s a bit of trivia for literary chaps like you.
    Manningham Buller (of whom I wot) is the daughter of the man on whom Anthony Powell reputedly based Widmerpool in ‘The Music of Time’ series.
    He was popularly known as ‘Bullying Manner.’

  • Nick

    Campbell’s blog really is beyond parody some days.

    Anyone else remember the time when Tony Blair fondly recalled standing at the Gallowgate End watching his favourite Newcastle United player Jackie Milburn ?…..who retired four years before Blair was even born.

    Or how about when Peter Mandelson was asked on the BBC what his most treasured possession was, and replied;

    “my Hartlepool United football scrarf”.

    I wonder who scripted those gems ?……

  • Richard Brittain

    To Nicky, who directed an entire comment to me on here:

    I wasn’t taken in by David Cameron. As said, I think he’s a decent guy and wanted to see what the change would bring. What I’m saying is; he doesn’t look like a leader. I’m disappointed with him so far. Merely commenting (I have no other agenda). My vote for him was nothing to do with Lord Ashcroft’s campaign. I also didn’t like numerous members of the Labour cabinet and wanted to see what the change would bring.