The cabinet minister Michael Gove recently told Newsnight on BBC television that we were unlikely to hear the phrase "big society" again, arguing that in this election campaign we would instead be talking about the extensive fruits of that notion (which are...?). Alas, it was not to be – David Cameron is clearly not yet willing to consign this pet theme of his to the attic, and a few days after Gove’s remarks the big society reared its head again in the Conservative manifesto: "A more engaged nation, taking more responsibility for ourselves." More cynical rival parties may well interpret that last phrase as a euphemism for welfare cuts. Tory candidates reported five years ago that this theme bombed on the doorstep, and will no doubt be trying to focus on other topics this time around.
Yes, it has been manifesto week, and the Conservatives also managed to bring something new to the charity and voluntary sector table – the proposal that all employees in the public sector and companies with more than 250 staff would be allowed three days annual paid leave to volunteer. This received a ritual welcome from the sector umbrella groups but was promptly panned by charities operating in the real world. "My heart sank," confided one experienced fundraising chief at Third Sector’s Big Questions Live session on Monday, part of our Fundraising Week. The proposal would not only be costly to employers, but would also be a significant burden for charities, unless ways were found of consolidating and targeting the effort properly.
On other fronts, it was more of the same from the Conservatives – extending the National Citizen Service, social impact bonds and social investment. New from Labour was the idea of a National Primary Childcare Service to facilitate charitable delivery of extracurricular activities and a British Investment Bank that would foster the social economy. Both nice to have, no doubt. The party would keep the National Citizen Service, but repeal the lobbying act.
The manifestos of the other parties are of significance to the extent that they might end up in coalition with the Conservatives or Labour, or supporting a minority government. Ukip would scrap the National Citizen Service, clamp down on "fake charities" and end the commitment to 0.7 per cent of GDP going to overseas aid – none of which, in practical terms, are likely to come about. The Lib Dems, a more likely partner in government, included predictable warm words about the sector and social action in its manifesto and said it would consider charitable status for news organisations that work for the public benefit. It would also consider, in the light of Lord Hodgson’s forthcoming review, whether the lobbying act had struck the right balance: that’s a step forward for the party reputed to have been the driving force in the coalition’s railroading through of this unpopular legislation.
None of this – least of all the big society – is likely to be much of a vote-swinger in the election on 7 May, where the economy, the health service, education and the credibility of the leaders are likely to dominate. But among those voters whose choices might be influenced by the concerns of the sector, many will go for the party that they consider will do least damage to welfare and the social fabric, and thus put least additional strain on social welfare charities that are already groaning under the pressure of the last few years.