Brian Lamb: Campaigners need to connect with the public's sharp sense of injustice

New research shows that public sentiment is beginning to drift away from valuing social provision, says our columnist

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

The report British Social Attitudes, published in December, provided material for some sobering end-of-year reflections by third sector campaigners. It is an annual survey by NatCen Social Research of attitudes to life in this country.

The 2011 edition reveals that there is declining support for public spending on everything from poverty to housing and health, which suggests that public sentiment is beginning to drift away from valuing social provision.

Many people think the current distribution of income is wrong, the report finds, but only a third want to see money redistributed.

Rise of cynicism

It also finds that there are few areas of common interest and little desire for community action, which prompts the authors to ask "whether we really are in it together, or just in it for ourselves". This provides little succour for supporters of either the big society or greater social provision.

In the voluntary sector, where almost everyone believes there is a need for more social action than the state can provide, many people think that there should be a public space where people can come together to find solutions for their communities' problems.

They believe that what politicians decide to do matters, for good or ill, and that campaigning with public support can bring about change.

But this belief is slowly being eroded by this growing cynicism about the idea that collective and political solutions can make a difference on the ground. This is naturally a concern for campaigners.

Until now, engagement by the public with the voluntary sector has been a counterweight to the many people who have given up on the effectiveness of traditional political action.

But why write to your MP, or lobby your local councillor, more people seem to feel, if you no longer believe in collective solutions to problems? Why aim to get the public to take action on climate change if people feel that neither community action nor collective provision make any difference and it's everybody for themselves?

The factors sapping public confidence are not difficult to discern: the economic downturn has made people more wary about the use of public money. Add to this the scandals over MPs' expenses and lobbying, and you get a toxic mix that undermines confidence in the political process.

Bold campaigning

So what new year resolutions can campaigners adopt to fix all this? One idea is to highlight how voluntary sector advocacy is different from private sector lobbying so we don't get tarred with the same brush.

Another is to demonstrate how public action and advocacy have changed lives for the better.

Organisations that have been bold in campaigning this year have often struck a chord with the public. But we need to do more to demonstrate why taking action benefits the most disadvantaged in our communities.

Calls for more public spending are going to fall on stony ground at the moment, but people still have a sharp sense of injustice. So we also need to address what the public is telling us and try to reframe debates to reconnect with people's concerns and values.

If we do this, we can look forward to a good year for campaigning in 2012.

Brian Lamb is a consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

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