Cuts in public spending might lead to "greater fragmentation" of the sector, academics have warned.
A paper in the latest issue of the Voluntary Sector Review, a collection of voluntary sector research and policy papers that is published three times a year, examines the changes in the government’s approach to the sector after the 2010 general election.
From the Third Sector to the Big Society: consensus or contention in the 2010 general election?, contrasts what it calls Labour’s "hyperactive mainstreaming" approach, which saw high levels of support for the sector during its 13 years in power, with the big society agenda adopted by the coalition, which promotes the idea of community action as an alternative to state intervention.
The paper, which was co-authored by Pete Alcock, director of the Third Sector Research Centre, TSRC researcher Jane Parry and Jeremy Kendall of the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent, argues that the election did not provide a clear step change in policy in England.
"For the first two years at least, the new government’s big society agenda has involved significant continuities with the agenda inherited from the previous administration," it says.
But the extensive reductions in public spending could lead, it says, to "significant re-mixing of the inherited ideological legacy".
The "strategic unity" of the sector has been fragile, it says, built largely out of a desire to present a united front to a supportive government in the expectation that this support would be "translated into financial backing".
The paper says: "Where this is no longer forthcoming, or is at least much reduced, then the contradictory agendas of policy development and the diverse and contested nature of sector practice may lead to greater fragmentation within the sector and a more conflictual political engagement with government, as the gradual removal of support for the strategic partners – the major English infrastructure bodies – has already begun to reveal."
But the article acknowledges it is still the "early years" of the new government.