It’s time to get political

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An Unservile Society – It’s time for the voluntary sector to get political

One analysis of the study of political history is that it boils down to understanding a certain equation: about power. How much power should the king have, how much the nobles, how much the courts, the Witan, Parliament, Government, local government, quangos, voluntary groups, the citizen?
It’s an equation that is endlessly adjusted. If once the main tension was between monarch and nobles, now, neither have much power. Local Government never had more power than it did in the first half of last century. It has a lot less now. Some charities have considerable influence, but most commentators suggest that campaigning groups are less influential than thirty years ago.
One might say that the individual citizen has never been more powerful. In addition to the citizen’s hard-won democratic rights, the twenty first century citizen has access to huge swathes of information; to sophisticated ways of linking with his or her fellow citizens; and is not temperamentally prone to joining organisations, still less being corralled or dictated to.
On the other hand, the Government equally has access to all the same information, and more, and with its civil service available to make sense of it all and the resources to buy research and intelligence, it has greater power than ever before too.
So if the individual citizen and the Government both have more power than ever before, it might be expected that there’s a feeding frenzy of debate between them. Yet there seems no great appetite for political discourse. If anything, getting political is slightly bad mannered, as if politics between friends and neighbours, a little like religious beliefs, are regarded as private.
And voluntary groups seem to reflect this new etiquette, rather than bulk up opinion, fill the vacuum and play a role somewhere between the citizen and the state.
Politics gets sucked into staid quangos and partnership meetings which don’t work in community terms, if only because the accountability therein goes up from each attendee into their organisations, rather than directly into the community.
The main parties are similar. How much choice is offered between deciding whether to have some or quite a lot of competition in provision of schools or health services: call that choice? Is somebody trying to distract us with a red herring?
The Government White Paper on Community Empowerment, despite its flavour of duffing up local government, goes some way to localising power to communities in planning issues, neighbourhood governance and a duty on local authorities to consult and involve. The Sustainable Communities Act goes further and does actually empower communities to tell the Government, albeit via local government, how to stop declining.
What role is there for the VCS to use its voice and play a strong role in defining the relationship between citizen and state? Surely, quite a large one. The sector was more vocal and more political twenty years ago. It may not have been very effective, but that is not reason to stop doing what you do, rather to get better at it.
If politics is the yeast in the loaf of policy formation, what initiatives would foster a more politically active voluntary and community sector? Let’s have a discussion about where we are going. To set the ball rolling, here are a few suggestions:
  • A braver voluntary sector speaking out on behalf of those they represent, with a culture of being constructive, participative and thoughtful, but assertive
  • A recognition by Government and local government that a buoyant, informed and self-confident campaigning and charitable sector is a key adjunct of an unservile society
  • Fewer powers for Government and more for local government, as per the rest of Europe, so that local groups can be contribute to a local agenda where decisions are taken locally
  • A more accountable society, where quangos, such as Local Strategic Partnerships are either abolished, or retrofitted as accountable to the communities they allegedly serve.
Jim McCallum is Volunteering Director at Voluntary Action Leicester, but the above is written in a personal capacity.

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