Editorial: An eerie silence as the election nears

As far as policy on the voluntary sector is concerned, there seem to be no new ideas coming through, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

There is no knowing what will happen in politics between now and the election in 15 months, and the writing of manifestos is a long way off. But there’s little doubt that the campaign is already under way on the main battlefields of the economy and the cost of living.

As far as policy on the voluntary sector is concerned, however, there’s an eerie silence at the moment. Perhaps everyone’s political energy has been drained by the recent fight over the lobbying act. Maybe it’s just too low down the list of priorities and there are simply no new ideas coming through.

One of the problems – if that is the right word – is that there is so much common ground between the main parties on the voluntary sector. They all agree, for example, that it forms the glue of our social fabric and should have a greater role in providing and improving public services.

But on that common ground there is space for significant differences. The commissioning of services, for example, is perceived by many to be skewed in favour of the private sector: would Labour use the levers of power to shift that balance significantly towards the voluntary sector?

This and similar questions for Ed Miliband are spelled out in the timely Soapbox article by John Tizard and David Walker here. What is needed from Labour, they argue, is no less than "a 21st-century definition of non-profit enterprise and purpose".

There is also a growing need to protect the sector’s role as conscience of the nation, which underpins all its other purposes. Charities that receive public funding or contracts are under increasing pressure from the government to show no dissent. It is easier for voluntarily funded charities to speak out and campaign, although the lobbying act is likely to inhibit them.

But our political system, as the late Lord Hailsham pointed out, tends towards being an elective dictatorship; and politicians who want a tolerant, plural society should more easily accept that charities are a vital bulwark against that tendency.

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