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People Power

By Professor Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham

When David Cameron launched the Conservatives’ 2010 election manifesto, he declared it ‘the biggest call to arms in a generation’ and invited people to take control over their own lives, to become part of the Big Society.  Parents would be given the power to set up their own schools; residents could veto disproportionate council tax increases in referendums; people could take over the running of their local pub or Post Office; constituents would have the power to oust errant MPs; and people could elect police commissioners to replace local police authorities.

The idea behind the Big Society was soon widely mocked and rarely featured again in the 2010 campaign, although Cameron would routinely mention it in his stump speeches.  The Conservatives were criticised both for the idea itself (how many parents, for example, really wanted to take over the running of their schools?) and for springing it on the public.  In their defence the Conservatives did at least have a clear underpinning idea – the Big Society was a Big Idea, of the sort which pundits always call for – and one which Cameron and his team had been going on about in different guises for years.  And yet despite the extensive work that the Conservatives put in to market-testing most of their policies and the language used to sell those policies, at the point at which it was launched neither the general theme of the Big Society nor the individual policy items contained within it had been market-tested – either in polls or focus groups – and it soon became obvious that the central concept of the manifesto, however worthy, did not resonate on the doorstep.