It feels as if we've been in a pre-election period ever since Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister and almost went for it in late 2007. Now that we're really under way, Third Sector will be examining the manifestos, following the debates and interviewing Jenny Willott of the Lib Dems, Nick Hurd of the Conservatives and Angela Smith of Labour.
Until last week, the contest between them seemed paralysed: all were promising to do something, without really specifying what, about the big issues of Gift Aid reform, irrecoverable VAT and the Compact. The only firm pledge seemed to be that the Lib Dems would introduce a composite rate of Gift Aid. And then David Cameron made another 'big society' speech and released a document that proposed training 5,000 community organisers, using the model pioneered by Saul Alinsky in the US.
What really woke people up was the associated proposal to use the proceeds of the government loan fund Futurebuilders to train the organisers and finance neighbourhood grants in the poorest areas: Futurebuilders has stopped lending money, but continues to receive repayments. Social Investment Business, which runs the fund, is discomfited that its loan-making would cease and the sector would have to turn more for social investment to the Big Society Bank, the Conservatives' rather toytown name for the social investment bank. But SIB should perhaps not be surprised: the Tories have been unhappy with Futurebuilders ever since a less than complimentary report about it by the National Audit Office last year.
Community organisers could give a big boost to many towns and cities and help with many social problems. But politicians should not delude themselves that poverty and deprivation, which play a big part in such problems, can be tackled without government intervention and public money. Perhaps this is what the debate will be about for the sector in the coming weeks.