Outside Edge: From the top - or bottom

In amongst the bluster of election build-up lies an opportunity for the sector to trumpet and define its role, says Tash Shifrin. Tash Shifrin is a specialist social affairs writer.

The hideous period of the phoney election is upon us - the parties are squaring up, and the papers are full of it. But there is no official campaign, and no confirmed election date.

Yet polling day looms over all political activity. And it is casting its shadow across the voluntary sector, too. This is why the National Council for Voluntary Organisations is launching an "election manifesto" at its annual conference today (Wednesday).

In a fit of optimism about the electoral process, the NCVO hopes to influence what the major parties have to say. The manifesto begins with key principles, urging the parties to value the voluntary sector first and foremost for its independent, grass-roots, campaigning dimensions.

Politicians, the NCVO believes, should praise voluntary activity that is defined and proposed by the sector itself, and not simply see charities as footsoldiers of the Government's public policy or potential public service providers.

Sadly, the optimism is misplaced. Already, this looks set to be a lowest common denominator election, with the parties scrabbling in the gutter of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Sophisticated arguments about the voluntary sector will not be an electoral battleground.

Even outside elections, politicians - and particularly the current Government - appear to be interested in the voluntary sector only when co-opting it for their own aims.

But all is not lost for the NCVO's vision. It asks questions that are crucial for the sector, if not for politicians. This was illustrated in two stories, handily juxtaposed, in ThirdSector last week.

One was the tale of South London Citizens, a grass-roots community development charity, and its move to lay bare the grim experience of both clients and staff at Britain's main asylum and immigration centre. It has launched a "citizen's inquiry", chaired by a human rights lawyer - the results could be interesting.

The second highlighted fears that the Association of London Government will move from making grants in response to voluntary sector initiatives to contract-style commissioning to meet its own plans. The shift fits with a notion of the voluntary sector primarily as bidders for service delivery contracts and with the Big Lottery Fund's approach of tying grants to government-set outcomes.

The two stories highlight a real tension over whether the impetus for voluntary activity comes from the top down, or from the grass-roots up.

The call to remember grass-roots campaigning may not be heeded by the electioneers, but it could boost the sector's own pride in this side of its work.

That is no bad thing. Telling politicians that the sector has a vitally important campaigning role is not half so effective as hitting them in the face with a vitally important campaign.

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