‘Big Society’ unwelcome

The Conservatives are making a lot of play of their ‘Big Society’, where voluntary organisations, community groups and charities pick up the areas from which the government would withdraw, under their plans for a smaller government. But as a former voluntary and charity worker, I wonder if they’ve asked the voluntary organisations themselves.

Anyone who has worked with a voluntary organisation that has, at some time, taken government funding or a government mandate will know that it can be a poisoned chalice. Not long ago a charity chief executive told me that it was an annual nightmare to try to work out the following year’s budgets, because the government was so late in deciding what they would fund that all the staff had to be put on notice of redundancy for three months each spring. This goes for central government funding, arms length funding — for example, through the Arts Council –, local government funding, and funding which comes through Local Education Authorities or by even more circuitous routes.

But perhaps the Conservatives are not interested in actually giving money to charities. They are, after all, trying to reduce expenditure. It’s true that charities often use money more efficiently than government does (although that is because they supplement it through fundraising), but if you don’t want to hand any money over at all, then there is no danger of charities becoming grant-dependent.

But that begs the question, why would any charities redefine their objectives in order to fulfil Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ plan? What’s worse, what would the mechanism for communicating this plan be? I’ve been to many seminars designed to engage my interest as an arts worker, church leader, health worker, businessman, public relations practitioner, musician (remember that each man in his time plays many parts!). As often as not, these seminars entirely fail to hit their market. I’ve sat with young musicians in torn jeans and Nikes while a middle-aged man in a suit tried to explain new structures for the arts. I’ve sat in meetings targeted at church leaders where local authority bureaucrats began by explaining their opposition to organised religion, but their (uncomfortable) willingness for churches to get involved with their community project. I’ve sat in tedious seminars for health workers where the speaker seemed to imagine that, as health workers, we clearly weren’t very bright, and had to have our own jobs explained to us. I generally come away with mild interest — usually much milder than the interest I went in with. I don’t ever recall actually doing anything differently as a result of such talkings-to.

Community groups, charities and other targets of David Cameron exist not for his benefit, but for whatever purpose they were created for. They also have a character which is unique, based on the community of people that run them. Neither of these are amenable to a sudden diktat from government, nor to softer overtures. If Britain’s charities are not currently delivering the Big Society that David Cameron wants (and clearly they are not, otherwise he would not have to try to make his case), then they are not going to suddenly start delivering it because he asks them to.

The crucial thing about voluntary organisations which David Cameron seems to fail to understand is, simply, that they are voluntary.

Clegg edges Cameron out 2:1

In four polls after tonight’s debate, Cameron came first in one, Clegg in two, and they were equal in the fourth. Brown was last in three out of four polls, and joint second with Cameron in one poll.

YouGov: Cameron 36 per cent, Clegg 32 per cent, Brown 29 per cent

ComRes: Clegg 33 per cent Brown 30 per cent, Cameron 30 per cent.

Angus Reid: Clegg 35 per cent, Cameron 32 per cent, Brown 23 per cent.

Populus: Cameron 36 per cent, Clegg 36 per cent, Brown 27 per cent.

This comes hard on the heels of a nasty smear campaign run this morning in the national press, alleging that Clegg had acted improperly when, in fact, Clegg had not only acted properly but had also fully declared everything he was doing.

Cameron needed a knock-out blow tonight, and his spin-doctors had more or less promised one. He did not get it, and the ‘Clegg effect’ is set to grow.

On the streets, I have been amazed by the overwhelming welcome I’ve been getting since last Thursday. I went round a school this afternoon and was treated like a rock-star by children who (I guess) probably didn’t know who Nick Clegg was eight days ago, and certainly had no real interest in the Liberal Democrats.

It is changing. It is changing!

Neck and Neck nationally

Two polls are now putting the Lib Dems ahead of Conservative and Labour. No poll has put Lib Dems ahead since 1985, and all the polls are now agreeing that the gap between Lib Dems and the others is lower than the sampling error — in other words — we are truly neck and neck, and everything is to play for.

A Tory blogger is already claiming that this is all rubbish and he hasn’t noticed any of this on the doors. I don’t know what doors he’s been knocking on, but out on the streets of Shipston, Alcester, Tanworth and Claverdon, the story is totally different. People have been coming up to me for weeks telling me that they will vote for me for the first time because they are not satisfied with the Tory Central Office candidate here in Stratford. As of yesterday, people are walking up to me and saying “I have been a Tory voter all my life and I am voting for you for the first time because you have the finest leader in the land.”

It is changing. And it is likely to change more. Lab/Con spin doctors are saying that the Clegg will not have it his own way next time. My observation is this: in competitive situations, although the scores can reverse, they usually don’t. We all remember the great reversals of fortune because they make compelling stories. But, usually, the one who starts out in front increases their lead. I’ve seen this over and over again in competitive sports, and the psychology of sports is very similar to that of debate. Yes, anything can happen. But the most likely thing is that Clegg will solidify his dominance in the debates. Based on this week’s polls — and, again, anything can happen — this will be reflected in polls leads, and on election day.

Decisive victory for Clegg

Following the first leaders’ debate on ITV tonight, Nick Clegg took 46% in the ComRes poll (Clegg 46, Cameron 26, Brown 20) — as much as Brown and Cameron put together. In the YouGov poll he took 51 points against Cameron 29 and Brown 19. There were, of course, a number of unscientific polls conducted on newspaper websites, but they do nothing more than reflect their readers’ opinions. The real, scientific, polls are unequivocal.

If this were replicated in an election (of course, it won’t be, but the illustration is still valid), it would result, according to the BBC website’s calculator, in 530 seats for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons — a majority of 410 seats: a landslide beyond all conception and all precedent.

Liberal Democrats were, of course, looking for Clegg to make up ground tonight. Brown is generally considered to be undervalued and Cameron overvalued, a view not supported by tonight’s public response. Conventional wisdom suggested that Clegg needed to be up with the others, and it would do Lib Dems good because of the exposure. But the scale of the Nick Clegg result was absolutely devastating: an absolute majority of votes in one poll, an equal vote with the other two parties combined in the other.

Where did the debate landslide victory come from?

There were three factors, I think.

First, Nick Clegg made a point of answering the question. I followed the BBC comments page while watching the debate, and — leaving aside the obviously partisan comments — this was commented on again and again. He not only answered the question, but made a point of looking at and referring to the questioner to see if they thought he was answering the questions. Brown famously jibed at Cameron ‘this is answer time, not question time’, and, certainly, Cameron’s unwillingness to give an actual answer told against him. But Brown’s own attempts fell flat as well. My feeling is that Brown really was trying to answer the questions from time to time, but he was held up by his own opaque language: beginning a sentence with “Net inward immigration…” three times does not make for a good connection with viewers.

Second, the Lib Dem manifesto published this week was a clear winner in terms of the power it gave to Clegg over the other two. The manifesto sets out in detail exactly what the Lib Dems would spend and what they would save. Neither Labour nor the Tories — as Clegg pointed out — included figures in their manifestos. Cameron tried to have a bit of a go about the figures, but it is never easy to argue with a man on his own turf: Clegg knew his manifesto and his figures much better than Cameron did, and Brown made no attempt to overturn the Lib Dem figures at all.

Third, Nick Clegg positioned his two opponents very clearly in his own address as the ‘same old same old parties’. The bickering between Brown and Cameron which followed underlined that again and again. Clegg certainly benefited from the game that Brown and Cameron tried to play. They were almost deferential in their treatment of him, and when Cameron did attempt to question Clegg, it fell rather flat, especially on immigration, which should have been his strongest suit. Brown again and again tried to say that he and Clegg were agreeing. Unfortunately for him, Clegg refused to play along. This was all especially important because, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the bulk of Tory/Labour jeers are often enough to drown out Clegg’s comments. In a studio, with a studio audience and clear rules, this extraneous factor was taken away.

What difference will all this make? That remains to be seen — over the next few days, as the pundits weave their theories, and as the spin-doctors from left and right attempt to demonstrate (as William Hague is already attempting) that, despite all the opinion polls, their candidate won after all.

There may be more polls tomorrow, and they may give a different result. But, for now, based on this debate only, and without any particular connection with other realities, the result is a clearer victory for Nick Clegg than any Liberal Democrat could have hoped for.

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