Paul Streets: We must hold Boris Johnson's 'one nation' to account

In the wake of the election result, there must be a coordinated cross-sector effort to address the issues that matter to us as a sector

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

Five years ago I was interviewed for The Guardian by David Brindle in a piece headlined "Charities will be left to fill the void, which warned of a bleak world where the state had withdrawn from all but essential services and charities were left to pick up the pieces.

Earlier this year, Newcastle CVS proved my crystal ball-gazing speculation of yesterday as present-day fact in its report Canaries in the Coalmine.

It’s a tough picture. The retraction of the state is getting worse as "authorities revert to providing only statutory services" and CVS members spend more and more time "advocating for public services for people who should receive them". There is the "normalisation of poverty and food banks", "acceptance of austerity" as "the normal position" and the danger of "charities becoming the de facto state, without the resources, powers or law".

The article should be compulsory reading for us all – including Boris Johnson – because this is life today in his "one nation".

But what strikes me most poignantly is this comment: "There is an apparent lack of challenge to why we have reached this position."

If ever there was a call to arms, this is it.

It would be dangerous to see this as a small local charity issue. It affects a wide range of issues our sector champions: the environment, social care, disability rights, violence against women and girls, racism. Add your own.

As he departed the National Council for Voluntary Organisations earlier this year, Stuart Etherington challenged us to be less "worried and anxious" and less introverted. He called for us to look to the needs of those we are here to serve.

He was right.

So now we have a "one-nation" Prime Minister. Let’s hold him to that on behalf of those who "quivered" as they voted for him, but set aside any concern for what it might mean in their anxiety to "get Brexit done".

It’s time to get more vocal about the impact of 10 years of austerity on the issues and the people we exist to serve, issues that rip our "one nation" asunder.

So how can we get traction?

We need a coordinated cross-sector effort to influence and address the issues that matter to us all and to ensure that politicians and ministers cannot duck and dive away from them: access to decent social care; proper support to those with disabilities; a safety net that works for the poorest; decent affordable social housing; regional policies that address the structural inequalities that divide and polarise our nation, and will continue to do so post-Brexit.

We also need a government that thinks about future generations as much as it does the voters of today by prioritising climate change action.

The elimination of the need for food banks would be a good place to start. Their existence should shame us all: we should never accept austerity as the norm in our prosperous economy. And surely they cannot be part of your vision for "one nation", Johnson.

As the new government finds its feet, this will require a different form of leadership in all of us: the ability to come together in common cause, working in partnership wherever we can, and being resolute and robust in challenging those in charge wherever we need to.

Ideally this leadership will be led by the NCVO, with Acevo and other networks and bodies bringing together a range of regional, local and sector perspectives. Above all, it will be driven by the needs of those at our coalfaces – whether it is a CVS in Newcastle, a shelter for the homeless in Norwich or an Age UK in Newquay.

Now is the time to be less anxious, and more strident, in defence of those we exist to serve: people who deserve to be part of Johnson’s "one Nation" too.

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

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