Yesterday I watched David Cameron give a speech about his big society agenda at a meeting hosted by think tank the Centre for Social Justice.
Previous announcements by the Conservatives about the idea have been relatively well-received by much of the national press, so I was interested to see how an audience that consisted largely of voluntary sector workers would respond.
Cameron started by thanking Brooke Kinsella, the former Eastenders actor whose brother was stabbed to death in an attack in 2008 and who is now a trustee of an anti-knife crime charity, the Ben Kinsella Trust, for agreeing to become the party’s knife crime ambassador. She made a powerful speech in which she described her family’s grief, and said she did not believe Labour had done enough to help voluntary groups that aimed to reduce knife crime.
Cameron told the audience there had always been violence and evil in society, but that the frequency of violent crime and antisocial behaviour “betrays a deep and fundamental problem in our country today”. The problem, he said, was that the Government had been “hyperactive” in trying to solve society’s problems. The state was “monolithic, inhuman, clumsy and distant,” and it had removed the desire of ordinary people to help their neighbours and their local communities. He said the Conservatives’ solution to this would be to “invite charities into the running of our public services.”
The voluntary sector should not be seen as the third sector, he said, but the first. Cameron did not mention that more than a third of the voluntary sector’s income already comes from the state. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there were no policy details of what his plans would mean for charities: would it be more grants; more contracts or bigger contracts?
I spoke to several charity representatives after the speech, and most seemed unimpressed. The general sense was that, despite the rhetoric, public sector spending cuts were coming and it would be unwise for charities to assume otherwise. On the plus side, one said, the Tories’ talk of cutting red tape might mean state funding would be easier to get under a Conservative government, even if there was less of it.
But perhaps the biggest concern was ideological: audience members felt much of Cameron’s language implied he was impressed by the “do-it-yourself” politics of the 1960s and 70s, when charities such as Shelter were formed because of a realisation that the welfare state was not equipped to cope with all of society’s problems. But the state has changed a lot since then, and charities have too.
The Conservatives have a long way to go in convincing the voluntary sector that the same “do it yourself” mentality could work today.