Civil society needs to speak up and be heard


The expectation of change I had in the first few days following the election result, sadly, is now subsiding. A Conservative government will likely continue, with Theresa May seeking the votes she needs from the DUP to stay as prime minister.

My own disappointment is I am sure, widely shared by the community and voluntary sector, although they will not admit this publicly. Indeed, the Lobbying Act effectively silenced the sector during the election, leading to uncertainty, frustration, and anger among those with something to say.

By clinging to power, policies that have savaged public services, seen wages stagnate, and cut welfare benefits look set to continue. The government may be less strident in their approach, they may even drop some of their manifesto promises (on funding of social care perhaps?), but their direction will surely be the same. They are, after all, conservatives, so there will not be any large scale public spending on welfare or any redistribution of wealth. Indeed, I just don’t see Theresa May rushing to help the vulnerable, empowering communities or promoting social investment.

For the voluntary and community sector I doubt little will change. The effect of seven years of Conservative rule will continue to be felt even if austerity is no longer pursued with such vigour.

So how should the sector respond?

As I said during the election, we should all become political. This means explaining the impact of public policy, raising awareness, and pointing out the alternatives. It will take time, and yes, some resources. It will also take some careful planning given the legal requirements placed on charities and also the aforesaid concerns about the Lobbying Act. But if the public is to learn about problems and solutions, then civil society has to push back at the barriers it faces.

For organisations, a good communications strategy including effective social media campaigns, is a good place to start. In addition, strengthening links with local communities, and developing constructive relationships with local MPs and councillors, should be considered. Smaller organisations must also look to national bodies such as NCVO and Social Enterprise UK to continue their lead, scaling-up such activities, taking the sector’s message to Parliament and arguing for repeal of the Lobbying Act. Also, during the election campaign, some organisations released their own manifestos of “policy asks”, including Gingerbread, The Big Issue and the Child Poverty Action Group. These and similar manifestos need to be kept in the public eye, and drawn to the attention of those with power and influence.

Nor too should discussion of Brexit be left to the politicians. An end to European funding, an end to free movement of people, and the impact of Brexit on the economy will affect everyone. But with still no clear sign of where the government is taking us, other than out of Europe, a coordinated response on Brexit from the sector is needed now rather than later.

Of course, politics can be unpredictable. So I could be wrong; and perhaps we will see a more inclusive approach from the government that embraces social change, and fully involves civil society. But just looking at how Theresa May has responded to the election result tells me that appearing strong and stable matters more than being wise and reflective. Either way, the sector needs to speak up and make sure it is heard.

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