The most obvious mistake I made at the last one was to vote Lib Dem as a tactical vote in a safe seat. I thought I might be helping to keep the Conservatives out. That didn't quite go according to plan. But, in my defence, the Lib Dems were saying some very sensible things at the time. They promised on their honour that they would scrap University tuition fees. As I recall, they even issued a pledge like card that gave us a guarantee. They were also talking about the importance of the environment. They seemed like a reasonable option for a vote. We all know how the University fee thing turned out. The environment got dropped as a serious concern a little more quietly. I should have known.
Perhaps that was a forgivable mistake. Certainly a lot of other people made it. When it came to Cameron I should have been more on my guard. But he said two things with such conviction that I actually thought he meant them and I also thought he had got it right. He promised us an end to all the top down re-organisations of health and education. He was going to let the professionals get on with the job of running first class public services. Since this is strongly in the interests of the vast majority of his own voters I thought it quite possible that it would be put into action. How wrong can you be? Biggest re-organisation ever of health. Huge drive to rebrand schools as academies in the hope that a re-organisation would somehow improve outcomes. Complete revolution in the welfare system based on a mean spirited belief that the bank collapse was caused by us being too generous to the poor. I should have seen all that coming.
The second U turn was less predictable. Cameron spent a lot of time during the election talking about the Big Society and how he wanted a strong and vibrant voluntary sector. He seemed to be thinking like a one nation community Conservative, trying to harness the really useful creativity and dedication that exists amongst some of the best people in our society. Charity workers, carers, and voluntary workers embody the spirit of a community that acts to help itself and Cameron's commitment to helping to create an atmosphere that would help them to do this more easily and more effectively seemed excellent. It was a complete contrast to Thatcher's insistence that there was no such thing as society. Perhaps we really did have a caring Conservative government and the nasty party was over and done with.
If anything the betrayal here has been even more brutal. From the day he entered office the Big Society started to move down Cameron's agenda and then disappear completely as a concern. Then the cuts to local authority budgets started. The 40% cut for Leeds is fairly typical. A great deal of money from the local authorities went into supporting local charity and volunteer groups. A lot of relatively small grants were used to kick start support centres, maintain community led initiatives and to encourage fund raising by matching efforts coming from localities or from people who understood the real needs of those encountering a particular social or medical issue because they had direct personal experience of that issue. For the local authorities this was discretionary spending. They had a choice over whether to spend on this and a legal obligation to spend on many other things. Faced with massive budget cuts they took the easy and sometimes the only option. They cut out the funding that was discretionary. The voluntary sector lost funding hand over fist and the Big Society got smaller.
Now, as the election approaches, the Big Society is back on the agenda. The Conservatives are promising that they will make all big organisations give their workers three days a year to contribute to work in the voluntary sector. Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that this is a completely uncosted proposal. It is not a bad idea. This kind of injection of help and expertise could be great for the voluntary sector. It could also be great for the people that volunteered. A few more investment bankers helping out in soup kitchens could do wonders for social cohesion and solidarity between different sections of society. For a split second I was tempted once again to hope that there had been some kind of conversion to a more principled way of operating.
Then I thought, no. Once bitten - twice shy. There's an election on. There's £30 billion of cuts promised as soon as it is over. You can fool some of the people all of the time. But there's a limit to how easily even I can be fooled by the same promise at the same stage in the run up to the polls!