Comment: Can Brown's consensus work for us?

Meeting the Challenges of the Future - Reaching Out. This was what the voluntary sector donned its collective Sunday best for last week to hear Gordon Brown set out his views about a "new, progressive consensus". All the usual faces were there - the high, the mighty.

John Knight
John Knight

At times, Brown's agenda invoked a sense of deja vu. But the intention to engage better with those who sit outside the normal channels of influence was tangible. As he continued speaking, however, I couldn't escape the burning question: how?

Take the proposal to set up citizens' juries. It is compelling, but if I think about my own efforts to engage with people who are politically, socially and culturally disenfranchised, it is a big ask. In my experience, such engagement is all too often tokenistic. Making citizens' juries work will require a real effort to reach out to groups of people who are distant from any notions of self-determination. My fear is that the already powerful and influential could inadvertently dominate the initiative.

Then there is the issue of 'listening'. Mr Brown was keen that we understood his desire to listen. But would he listen to calls from juries advocating the revision of VAT regulations for charities? Or would the listening be selective?

The idea about standing commissions on issues that have a longevity and broad national appeal seemed sound. They will, I hope, import ideas from people who are not in thrall to the corrupting party-political mantras that can stop progressive thinking stone dead. One area Mr Brown mooted for the attention of a standing commission was carers. Another area that needs attention is the issue of paying for personal care and the urgent need to redraft the contract between the state and the individual.

In the spirit of Mr Brown's "new, progressive consensus", I too want to try to broaden my thinking and listen to what people in the sector are saying. Readers can contact me on jk.thirdsector@googlemail.com. I can't promise to act on or even reply to your emails. But I will read them and, where I can, echo your thoughts through this column.

- John Knight is head of policy and campaigns at Leonard Cheshire

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