How dead is the Big Society?

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How dead is the Big Society?

James Turner, Associate Director at Rocket Science, looks at what the main parties have to say about the voluntary and community sector.

How dead is the Big Society? My view, and I think the generally shared opinion, was it drew its last breath sometime in 2013 or 2014. A victim, perhaps, of Lynton Crosby’s desire to ‘get the barnacles off the boat’ in the run up to the election and focus solely on the economy. Or maybe a recognition that it simply hadn’t worked. The conclusion of the January 2015 Civil Exchange report, Whose Society? The Final Big Society Audit was blunt: “The Big Society has failed to deliver against its original goals.”

But what’s this on page 45 of the Conservative manifesto (I assume you have read up to p45 by now…)? Helping you build the Big Society – a whole two pages of commitments to volunteering and to the voluntary sector. I admit that it’s not the Big Society-fest that the 2010 manifesto was. But that was an age when we were all in it together. Times have clearly moved on.

The focus of the Conservative commitments are, first, on expanding the National Citizen’s Service, secondly on involving charities in delivering public services (although the Work Programme is held up as an example of this, mmm…). And finally an entitlement for three days of volunteering each year for people working in large companies and the public sector. That last commitment is perhaps particularly to be welcomed. Not least because it has raised the hackles of some traditional Conservative business supporters, worried about its potential cost.

And what of the other parties’ manifestos? Well, I think the first piece of good news is that, as with the Conservative manifesto, there is a surprising amount of space dedicated to the VCS. And there is also a fair degree of consensus. The themes in the Tory manifesto of encouraging social action among young people, involving charities in delivering public services and encouraging volunteering are seen across all the major manifestos.

There are differences in emphasis of course, but both the Conservatives and Labour highlight the Step up to serve campaign. And Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are all committed to supporting volunteering initiatives.

And in terms of delivering public services, Labour and the Lib Dems make specific pledges on early intervention and prevention – where the VCS often has a key role to play. Labour and the Lib Dems also both propose a replacement for the Work Programme administered at a more local level.

The one area of difference, unsurprisingly, is on the future of the Lobbying Act. This has, of course, complicated life for campaigning charities. Labour promises to repeal the Act (although accepting that it needs some sort of replacement). The Lib Dems say they will consider what to do based on the evidence of Lord Hodgson’s Review. I can’t see mention of the Act in the Conservative manifesto. But it’s safe to assume that having only introduced it last year, it would be set to stay with a Conservative government.

So there you have it: More mention of the VCS than you might expect. A large amount of consensus. But differences in approach. You might be cynical and say that none of it will happen anyway. But apparently that’s not the case – politicians do keep their manifesto promises!

Follow James on Twitter @JamesRocketSci

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