Guest blog post by Judy Robinson.
Post-2015 General Election, the UK is looking decided blue.
There are already many analyses about the election by voluntary organisations, but frankly some of them smack more of opportunism than thoughtfulness. So, here I want to look at some of the wider implications for the sector.
First, some reflections on the election:
- I was struck by how little seemed to be said about big critical questions: carbon reduction and the environment; ageing and health; decent jobs that pay a living wage; disengagement and social capital
- I did some canvassing by telephone and in person in a poor Northern town: some people were party agnostic or uninterested in the election and just disconnected from the whole process (though older people, noticeably less so)
- Areas where we door knocked (which had been slum cleared, I guess, in the 60s and 70s), now show their age and look neglected – in some cases with fluctuating populations, also affected by benefit changes and insecure wages.
- There were local elections as well as the General Election. These results in the Northern metropolitan boroughs, including the cities in the North, were almost wholly Labour wins. In many wards, UKIP was in second place
- Overall, nearly 34% of the electorate didn’t vote.
Those big issues won’t go away, whoever is in power. The realities of post-industrial north (much of which never recovered from previous recessions) will be a critical part of our environment.
Political disengagement linked to poverty could be a potent mix. When an ex Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, comments on how the UK has the four poorest places in Europe and a dismal record on tackling inequality and bringing different ethnic minorities together, you know we’re in trouble.
A further £12bn of cuts to welfare benefits re-inforce Major’s worries. Involve’s report on the current impact of welfare changes on people and VCS organisations, The collapse of the safety net, shows exactly why we should all worry.
I think the voluntary and community sector (VCS) and civil society have much to contribute to these tough problems that go way beyond the left, right, centre arguments in UK politics. The sector could be more ambitious in its contribution about big picture issues so that we are part of debates about what sort of society we want, and not just on the side lines discussing nuts and bolts.
Of course nuts and bolts matter! Things like VCS attitudes to outsourcing of public services, how to relate to combined authorities and city regions, and how to retain independence and a brave voice. But these are for another time.
The business case for the voluntary sector
We need, now, to talk about the business case for social justice: how sustainable economies and strong communities, inclusion and social capital are partners not rivals. The economist Will Hutton talks about social fairness within innovative, progressive capitalism. After all poor, unstable places don’t create skilled people, investment opportunities or healthy people.
On specifics, too voluntary and community organisations address some of those big issues:
- green energy and community energy create jobs and address climate change; engaging people will be vital too in changing carbon-guzzling habits
- supporting good health, through both the preventative work of the VCS and the way its activities (everything from brownies, walking groups to volunteering) create wellbeing, are the only way to reduce the costs of ill- health
- Working with people, community development and connecting to marginalised people are what the VCS is good at, and we’ll need much more.
Involve’s manifesto for the VCS in Yorkshire and Humber: Doing Better Together makes these points clearly: now they need to be argued and promoted persuasively and assiduously.
But we also need more acknowledgement by the metropolitan-based leaders in the VCS that the North is a different place in many ways, with different voices a long way from London. In his recent post-election blog post, campaigner Tom Baker talks about “messages outside zones 1-2”, whichsays it all really.
Outside of London, the devolution question is given a big boost by the success of the SNP and Osborne’s announcement that city devolution is a key policy for the new government. Boris Johnson, in a post-election interview, talked about a federal settlement and the need for devolution to cities.
Ed Cox, the director of the think tank IPPR North, has done an excellent analysis of the different parties’ devolution proposals (see point 7 below).
The Conservatives plans are couched “exclusively in terms of re-balancing the economy”. In any settlement with Scotland and the English cities, there is an opportunity to push the argument on beyond the economy. It will need to encompass doing public services differently, devolution of spending powers and crucially, civil society involvement and democratic devolution.
The lesson of Scotland, described by Martin Sime the CEO of SCVO at Involve’s Whose North is it anyway? seminar in March this year, is that civil society helped to shape a new sort of participatory politics reflected in the Scottish parliament. There’s a need and an opportunity for the Northern VCS here.
Some post-election alerts:
- The Lobbying Act is still there. NCVO, in its very helpful 2015: Implications for the Voluntary Sector (www.ncvo.org.uk election 2015 policy), says it should be fixed but still potentially restricts the right of charities to campaign and influence.
- Not everyone thinks charities are lovely! The right is saying so – watch out.
- Cuts haven’t gone away. Search for “Spending Cuts By Local Authority” on Google!
As in previous years, the most deprived local authorities in the north and London suffer the highest cuts.
- Cuts affect services and people especially children and families. Child poverty is likely to increase. According to www.endchildpoverty.org.uk three constituencies in Yorkshire and Humber are in the top 20 with the highest levels of child poverty: Bradford West, Leeds central and Bradford East. Figures for October 2014
- You may have thought manifestos don’t mean much. Time to read the Conservative one.
- For campaigners: read ‘9 Post Election Thoughts’ from Tom Baker including campaigns that cut through, such as Mencap’s Hear My Voice and Scope’s 100 Stories in 100 days – there are important lessons there.
- Devolution isn’t off the agenda. Have a look at The Devolution Dashboard by Ed Cox or a shorter version: City Metric’s General Election 2015: Here are three ways to make English devolution a reality.
- The future for smaller local authorities may look more fragile as cuts and reduced powers make them less and less sustainable: another changing feature of the landscape.
- We need vision and understanding. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, based in York, has some of the most useful analysis and hopeful ideas, as in Julia Unwin’s recent ‘Recipe for Change’ lecture.
What might this mean in practice? I seem to have spent too much time with three groups that are experts in hair splitting: the Labour Party (are we social democrats or democratic socialists); the VCS (is x-fill in yourself–the voice or a voice of the sector) and the C of E…no, I won’t even go there!
Now is the time to stop hair splitting! and so four challenges:
- Can the VCS create alliances and collaborations? Julia Unwin, CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation talks about finding surprising friends, in her lecture ‘A Recipe for Social Change’. To do this we have to put aside differences and work together.
- Can the VCS, especially the established organisations, get out more? It is in talking and listening that new ideas and hard realities come to the fore.
- Can we develop campaigning as an essential string to our bow? The VCS needs campaigning arms as well as trading arms.
- Smaller, locally rooted voluntary and community organisations will be more at risk yet more important as the welfare state and public services recede. Can the voluntary sector muster a sense of solidarity that spreads resource and sacrifices organisational self-interest?
Jane Hustwit, Acting CEO of Involve, said in her recent blog that we’ll need to be nimble, fast, brave and radical: I couldn’t put it better myself!
What do you think? Please share your comments in the box below.
Guest blog post by Judy Robinson