It turns out that Theresa May quite likes spring surprises. Just as many of us were thinking we were set for a relatively quiet summer after last year’s Brexit vote and the general election of 2015, she has sprung a surprise election on us for 8 June.
So now we’re faced with a seven-week election campaign period during which the parties will set out their priorities. The question now will be whether the charity sector actually features in a meaningful way in any of the major parties’ plans.
In 2015, the only real charity policy of note was the Conservative pledge to introduce three days of mandatory volunteering leave. Announced unexpectedly and hastily towards the end of the election campaign, the pledge appears to have got stuck in the mud since then, and no one in the Conservative Party seems to be championing its introduction. Last year’s Brexit vote made it increasingly unlikely that the government would win over a sceptical business community whose costs might increase as a result of honouring the pledge. It would therefore be something of a minor miracle if the pledge, in its current form, made it into the next Tory manifesto.
But there are huge opportunities for the sector going into the election. There is a growing recognition that the UK has become increasingly divided: not just over the issue of Europe, but socially and economically as well. Too many parts of the UK have been split between the haves and the have-nots, and in too many parts of the country economic policies have failed communities.
The election provides a genuine opportunity for the voluntary sector to put forward solutions and help deliver a more just and shared society. But it needs to start offering its ideas for the biggest questions of our times. For example, how can the voluntary sector help to raise the living standards of those in our poorest communities? And how can the sector help to alleviate the pressures faced by the NHS and other public services?
The House of Lords Select Committee’s recent report on the voluntary sector put forward some sound recommendations, including encouraging more commissioners to provide grants and taking more into account issues such as social value when selecting providers.
But perhaps the biggest immediate need is for the voluntary sector to have a genuine say in what the future of the country should look like. The introduction of the lobbying act deterred many charities from speaking their minds in the run-up to the last general election, fearful as they were of breaching the confusing rules. Now charities must rediscover their campaigning zeal and speak truth to power.
Sector bodies such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Acevo, the Directory of Social Change, Navca, Locality and the Charity Finance Group must also quickly establish where the power currently lies within each of the main political parties and try to influence the direction of their manifestos. Having some key calls shared by all would help the sector, but these need to be winnable policies and not hopelessly optimistic ones such as calling for the repayment of irrecoverable VAT.
Overall, the case needs to be made to all of the parties that the charity sector is part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Then, when a new government is formed in June, the charity sector might be closer to its heart, rather than treated like an appendage.
Andy Hillier is the editor of Third Sector