When Political Parties Agree (on What's Good)
The 'beef' with civil society
One thing that struck me during the eminently watchable Citizens UK hustings at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster – the one where Gordon Brown bellowed in a strangely engaging way – was the overwhelming sense of consensus. That this 'civil society,' this amorphous, joyous, terrifically energetic body of people who do so much for so many, is definitely a great, great thing.
And so it is. And sure, people like us have been thumping this particular tub for a while, as have most right-thinking people generally. But put that let-us-hold-hands-and-come-together positioning to one side a moment. Let us get down to the nuts and bolts of it all, do a bit of what Alistair Campbell has referred to as 'policy heavy-lifting.' What does this pro-civil society position actually amount to across our increasingly collaborative political elite? And, perhaps even more pertinently, in a time of tattered finances and constitutional crisis, how will they turn that affirmation into some sort of change for the better. Where's the co-operative 'beef'?
Anyone who has attended an event with the three 'third sector' supremos from each side – Nick Hurd MP, Jenny Willott MP, and the sadly departed Angela Smith – will have been struck by the measure of consensus on the policy issues. Willott has suggested that the ends they seek are the same, it is merely 'the way they would do it that is different.' What follows is an attempt to make sense of that and other statements.
So, Labour's approach veered between staying cheap and being absurdly expensive. There was much about advocating, platforming 'the sector,' which was happily also low-cost or cost-free. The Office of the Third Sector, their creation, was a model funder and advocate. It tried to put across best practice in programme funding and tried to secure the fundamentals of charities and social enterprises through guidance and capacity building. They made some noise about building the evidence base for 'the sector,' with a Third Sector Research Centre whose output I would be interested to see at some point, especially given the multi-million pound outlay. On this function of the OTS, we could say that, provided that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems realise that this approach as an end in itself is very much of the old order - fine in a time of plenty when Labour was able to back it up with capacity building funds, but useless now that we need to think smarter – then there is probably a measure of agreement here that continuing to use government to advocate on civil society's behalf in the first instance is a good idea.
But let us get to the real beef: the structural stuff. Can a structural policy for civil society - one that costs money - really survive what Sunder Katwala has rather ominously referred to as 'the cuts agenda'?
Consider, gift-aid reform for charities. On this the parties have differences. The Conservatives are committed to reducing systemic bureaucracy. In their original 'Voluntary Action' paper, they suggested brokering a deal with HMRC to modernise the system, and Nick Hurd has suggested that he likes the composite rate approach for gift aid, which would supervene tax bands to simplify the lot. The LibDems are interested in pursuing increased transitional reliefs, which is all right as it goes. Labour require cost neutral reform, and so, as Stuart Etherington of the NCVO put it, 'have kicked it into the long grass.'
There is probably no winning structural reform here, so agreement to disagree would hardly be fatal for the parties. For civil society, however, it would be a nightmare. £750m is lost to the charitable sector each year because of the nuances of the current system. But then, raising charitable donations or the gift aid claim rate would mean the Treasury pays more. A dilemma? We are going to be doing our bit to move this debate along.
Then there is reform of support structures for social enterprise: this is very much a 'details TBA' on all sides. Building an infrastructure to support grass roots social entrepreneurship - to funnel money down into key investment areas is key, but the policies are hazy. There is something to do with getting more money into the social investment market place, and there are enduring differences here. For example, Labour's model for a social investment bank essentially sought to keep the money managed by the sector, so as to capitalise consortia or co-invest in larger service delivering organisations. The Conservatives' model was on paper quite different, though it appeared to change depending upon who was speaking about it. The manifesto suggested a model for a so-called Big Society Bank that would invest in CDFIs and social market investment products, like Social Finance's social investment bond. However, David Cameron, at the aforementioned CitizensUK event, spoke instead of capitalising service-delivering social enterprise organisations – and so back to the Labour model. Yes, it sounds like an academic difference, but in fact it is the beef. Are social enterprises state servants or are they civil society actors who reduce demand on the state? And if the latter, how do we measure this so that government and business can fund them accordingly? This needs to be ironed out, because it will make a huge difference to delivery. Watch this space.
As for the LibDems – they have the weakest policy on this: to use the money for the social investment bank to spend on youth services and youth clubs. Given that this will attract little private money, will not capture the innovation of the social marketplace and really feels rather hurried, one might wonder whether the LibDems have really thought this through: or indeed understand the implications of not capitalising the social investment market (guess what: it's the grass roots and the poorest changemakers and participants that inevitably lose out).
The third big area is the helicopter view. It concerns what we might think of as the role of civil society in a new policy settlement. If you have read this blog to this point, you probably already have an interest in civil society. But can a coherent civil society policy really survive the arid economic environment in which we now find ourselves? Yes, these fellows all seem to be enthusiastic and cooperative, but when it comes down to it, won't they junk it all? Aren't there bigger fish to fry?
Superficially, it is unlikely that many of these particular structural civil society policies will form offer or gambit of any negotiations between the parties. Given the opportunity offered by civil society groups, not to deliver services necessarily, but to reduce demand on the state, this is a mistake, but an understandable one and it will take much more of this policy heavy lifting to really convey these arguments. Yet, despite the Big Society narrative failing to capture the electoral imagination, it is the centre piece of the Conservative policy agenda. There is even one doorstep policy that captures this: Michael Gove's school reforms, which almost certainly will form part of the negotiations. Given the Lib Dems' interest in giving more power to local councils – as the conduit for civil society groups – are these two agendas at base compatible? Fraser Nelson certainly has suggested that this presents a policy impasse, and this may be one facet of a wider ideological divide. But these are debates we need to have.
So yes, civil society is in play. Some of the ideological battles are being fought on their territory; and we owe it to those who do so much for so many to have the policy fundamentals place. For sure, it remains part of a new Conservatism that touches the other parties; the soul of a new, empowering narrative for politics that is that most elusive of political tools: the unalloyed good. And whichever of the three leaders forms the next Government, they would be well advised remember their own position at the CitizensUK hustings, and seek to add policy beef to their warm, welcome rhetoric.