Voluntary sector is ‘dangerous’ for democracy, warns ex-Times editor

Columnist and former Times editor Simon Jenkins warned last night of a “dangerous” tendency to see participation in voluntary organisations as a substitute for democracy.

"We are sliding into the kind of society where one votes every four of five years, and that's it," he told a voluntary sector audience of nearly 100 in London.

"Clearly most people in Britain regard participation in voluntary organisations as a surrogate democracy - you're with the Rotary Club or the Women's Institute or Oxfam or the NSPCC, and that's your bit for society.

"But it's not the same as self-government. We have got to constantly replenish the conduits of proper voluntary self-government even when we have this vigorous voluntary sector."

Jenkins was giving the 11th Hinton Lecture, delivered each year in memory of Nicholas Hinton, the former chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who died in 1997.

He warned his audience that previous lecturers had said how wonderful the voluntary sector was, but he was going to say the opposite.

Successive governments had removed real power from local councils and stared consulting stakeholders such as professional groups, lobbyists and voluntary organisations.

"They say people don't like local councils and that the new participatory democracy is civil society. I find this very dangerous. Britain is unique in the way it has eroded local participatory democracy.

"We have lost this link between people and elected representatives through the ballot, and the manifestation of what I'm objecting to is you - the voluntary sector. You are the victors, local government is the vanquished."

He told a questioner: "One of the things you should be campaigning for is bringing local councils to the centre of the stage instead of pushing them aside."

The lecture will be available on the NCVO website shortly.

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