Craig Dearden-Phillips: The Cinderella years

The sector had a great time at the ball, and it's over now - but the prince is inviting us back on the quiet

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

Times have changed for the leaders of the voluntary sector. Cast your mind back 10 years, to 2001. It felt then that, like Cinderella, the sector under New Labour was being spirited from a life cleaning ovens and sweeping floors and invited to the ball. The government wanted to engage with the sector, and to spend money on it. Its prince saw how well those in the sector understood the problems of the time - and how we could help him to build the new kingdom.

The 2000s were our ballroom years. A group of talented leaders emerged who inspired confidence and admiration. They enjoyed the privileges of the court and an increasing familiarity with those holding power. As the prince swung our sector around the dancefloor, we were eyed with jealous suspicion by some outside the gilded circle. What price, they asked, were we paying for this proximity? But the riposte was that while we sometimes got too close to government, we had credibility - and a massive bounty to show for our trouble.

Then midnight struck. A new, more sceptical prince came to power. Our gown immediately turned to sackcloth, our chariot back to a pumpkin, our horses back to mice. We were unceremoniously cast out of the kingdom. Even our name, the 'third sector', was denied and replaced with a new one of the prince's choosing: the 'big society'.

The reason, of course, was that the new prince had different, more ascetic tastes. The ball was over and he had inherited an impoverished kingdom. He decided the third sector had become part of the furniture, no longer reflecting its roots. So he took away most of our money and told us to get by without state handouts.

And his loving gaze passed over us and moved to the fields beyond the palace walls where 'real people' tended the fields and helped the needy without regard for goings-on in the court. They didn't ask and they didn't get. These were the real heroes, he declared as he slammed the door, giving us just enough corn to get by until we could support ourselves.

Of course, we were cross. Before the new prince's ascent to power, we had done our bit to win his heart. We had responded with enthusiasm to his new ideas, even the ones we had doubts about. Some of us even came up with plans to make them happen. Alas, to no avail. Cinderella was politely, but firmly, sent packing.

That was last year. So what is happening now? Having banished us, the new prince, I sense, realises that, without the third sector's goodwill and know-how, his own 'big society' - led, in theory, by the yeomen in the fields - will struggle to get traction.

The penny is dropping that, while Cinderella may have gorged herself on the palace's fine food and wine, she has left a hole that needs to be filled. Indeed, she now finds herself invited back on the quiet. Not held as close, nor treated as lavishly and indulgently. But definitely back.

Contact Craig at craigdeardenphillips.com

Craig Dearden-Phillips is chief executive of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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