Editorial: Can we buy the big society idea?

The Conservatives offer a vision of something new but the question is whether people believe in it, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

It started as the week of the manifestos, but ended as the week of the great TV debate, with Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats hailed as top performer. The first debate had novelty and even excitement, but the policies in the manifestos remain the fundamental texts around which the debates are formed. So which party has the best proposition for the voluntary sector?

There was little that was new from the three main parties. The Lib Dems espoused a 23 per cent single rate of Gift Aid, the Conservatives tinkered again with the Big Lottery Fund formula, and Labour was the only party to mention the value of the sector's campaigning role. Otherwise, all had the same basic message: "We love the voluntary sector." And by and large the sector's representative bodies chorused cautiously back: "We love you too."

Perhaps a more interesting document was a separate three-page letter that Nick Hurd and Francis Maude addressed to the sector, which began with a critique of Labour's record. It gives credit for the extra resources it has put into the sector, but says the policies have been jumbled and bureaucratic. With the benefit of hindsight, there is something in this: a complex and ramshackle structure has developed that would benefit from rethinking and rationalisation.

What's clear from the manifestos is that, for the sector as for society as a whole, the Conservatives have the nearest thing to a vision of something different. So it probably comes down to whether you believe the 'big society' idea hangs together and will help the sector to flourish, or is really - as the Lib Dem leader called it - a 'do-it-yourself' society, where government passes the buck and we get blamed instead of them if things go wrong. Labour's pitch has overtones of Hilaire Belloc's maxim of keeping hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse, and that of the Lib Dems still looks like a bit of a sideshow, despite the new-found Clegg effect.

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