Craig Dearden-Phillips: The sector needs to reconnect with the white working class

After the Conservative election victory last week, the sector has to embrace those with a less 'woke' view of the world

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

What does a Boris Johnson landslide victory mean for the third sector? It should at least trigger some self-reflection on two counts.

First, we need to ask how well we actually understand the very society we exist to improve. The truth is that our sector’s vision of the good society is often overly liberal and "woke", and not particularly attuned to the social atmosphere of the country at large. 

As Karl Wilding, now chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, presciently noted nearly three years ago"Brexit was, for certain people in our most deprived communities, the best thing that had happened in their lives, and our sector hasn’t always realised this." 

It was a brilliant observation. Our sector (and I count myself) is probably 90 per cent remain and has a predominantly liberal world view. Everything we do tends to have this flavouring: read anything that comes out of the grant-makers these days and you will see what I mean. Their criteria and forms reflect liberal preoccupations with "inclusion", "diversity" and "evidence". Charitable foundations also assume you know all about these concepts and can write masterfully about them. 

But what is the mainly London-based third sector saying today to connect with white working-class Brexiters in Burnley or Grimsby? In truth, not a lot and not enough.

So the third sector needs to decide whether we sit on the "woke" side of a widening culture war between liberals and social conservatives, or become a bit more accommodating ourselves to a diverse range views.

It's almost impossible to be openly Tory in the sector or a Brexiter without it affecting your employability or your chances of becoming a trustee. But we should not be filtering people out because their views differ wildly from our own.

The sector's diversity policies, which cover most areas of difference really well, don't extend to ensuring that people with a socially conservative or nationalist worldview also find their way onto our boards and senior workforces. Our boards are strikingly and worryingly homogeneous at the moment. 

We also need to drop the liberal box-ticking for funding. It’s gone too far and it’s unintentionally excluding people who can’t write fancy essays about their "lived experience".

The second big issue the sector needs to grapple with is how to respond positively to another decade of Conservative-dominated national politics. After three years of policy vacuum, government departments are about to become hyperactive again.

Three areas in which this is particularly true are health, education and communities. These are huge political imperatives now. To stand a chance of re-election in 2024, the Johnson administration has to help people in the new "blue wall" constituencies. He cannot risk a Thatcherite agenda of largely abandoning these places if he wants to hold them. To this end, Johnson will need to mobilise all three sectors: business, the state and our own third sector.

If our sector is serious about improving society, we must see this moment as an opportunity for social progress, irrespective of how we personally voted last week. We can’t wish the new Conservative government to fail or collapse into sneering cynicism about its real intentions hoping for a different result at the next general election. We need to get our heads around this and start to help.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is executive chair of The Social Group

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