David Cameron's former speechwriter and adviser has criticised the prime minister for narrowing his vision of the "big society", saying he now views it as little more than an exercise in which people help out by picking up rubbish and running tombolas.
Danny Kruger, who worked for Cameron in opposition and now runs Only Connect, a charity for people at risk of offending, says the Tories are focused on "bashing burglars and immigrants" in response to Ukip, rather than sticking to their promise of ambitious social reform. Writing in the Observer, Kruger says ministers such as Nick Hurd at the Cabinet Office have done excellent work with new laws that could enable local people to take over public assets and run public services, as Cameron originally envisaged when he promoted the big society as a way to transform Britain before the last election.
But he argues that unless there is "inspiration" from the top, rather than the current "quietism" and "defensive" approach, little will happen. Referring to Cameron's Christmas and New Year message, in which he praised people for "being good neighbours, running clubs and voluntary associations, playing their part in countless small ways", Kruger says that the big society was undersold and suggests the idea has been downgraded.
"The prime minister sounded like he sees Britain as a nation of litter pickers, and that progress in 2014 would mean a few more church hall tombolas." The big society, he says, "was crafted as a challenge to the centralised state, a massive shift in the culture of public services, so that power and responsibility are in the hands of local people and the social entrepreneurs who can really change communities".
But in many areas where it would be most useful – the poorest in the country – it is almost totally absent. A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice, a thinktank set up by Iain Duncan Smith, cited areas like Port Clarence on Teesside and Camborne in central Cornwall as "charity deserts" where the state was dysfunctional and there was no charitable sector to plug the gaps. The CSJ also says little progress had been made in getting local people to run public services.
Kruger says there is still a great opportunity to transform communities. "We could be on the cusp of a new Victorian era, when the best and brightest put their talents into national renewal. But we need inspiration, not quietism from the top: David Cameron needs to turn up the volume.
"For the 2015 election the Tories seem set on a defensive strategy: to see off Ukip by bashing burglars and immigrants. There is an alternative: to be the real party of social reform. It would be a braver, harder, and better strategy."
Christian Guy, director of the CSJ, said the big society needed to be as relevant in poor areas of Wales as in David Cameron's Oxfordshire constituency. "It can be transformational for our country, but it needs to mean as much in Rhyl as in Witney. The government should help to spread its benefits, resisting the inevitable clamour for shorter-term political gimmicks ahead of 2015."
In his New Year message Cameron praised "those millions who keep on strengthening our society too – being good neighbours, running clubs and voluntary associations, playing their part in countless small ways to help build what I call the 'big society'. Many of these people are Christians who live out to the letter that verse in Acts, that 'it is more blessed to give than to receive'. These people put their faith into action and we can all be grateful for what they do."
Kruger's and CSJ's remarks reflect a growing view on the Tory left that positive messages on social reform and the big society have been downgraded by No 10 in a response to the Ukip threat. Polling by Lord Ashcroft published today shows that 37% of people who voted Tory in 2010 say they would not do so tomorrow, and of these around a half would choose Ukip instead.