Reading the 2017 Queen’s Speech and comparing it with the Conservative Party manifesto is very revealing. Many of the headline election manifesto commitments including an expansion of the number of grammar schools, the ending of the free school lunches, removing the pensions’ ‘triple lock’ and many more policies have been ejected. The next two years, provided they are not interrupted by a general election, will be dominated by Brexit related Parliamentary activities and legislation.
Of course, the Government can introduce policies which were not either in the Conservative manifesto nor the Queen’s Speech. It can use secondary legislation as long as a parliamentary majority does not block it. And above all it can use fiscal and public expenditure policy to drive an agenda. The minority government may be able to cobble together majority votes on core legislation with support from the DUP. It may prove to be willing to use public expenditure to secure this support. If this happens there will be a case to be made for equity across the four nations.
So those organisations and people, who felt that the Conservatives’ austerity programme is now dead, need to be vigilant.
Mrs. May and her Party having failed to secure an overall majority in the House of Commons may change tack and even policies but the major social, economic, environmental and political challenges facing the country have not changed because of the vote on 8th June.
Critical public services such as social care (and the Conservative election proposal is another causality of the election result), the NHS, schools, police, fire and rescue, children’s services and many more remain underfunded and face severe cuts. The impact of the so called ‘welfare reforms’ from 2010 onwards continue to cause hardship, inequality and social division. Inequality is continuing to grow on so many plains.
The tragic fire in North Kensington has demonstrated more than many other events or actions the class divides in our society. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has shown too starkly a twenty first century ‘tale of two cities’. The tragedy has highlighted many issues including these social and economic divisions, the benefits of regulations designed to offer protection, what happens when local and central government fail to respond adequately to human needs, and above all to the powerful impact of community social action.
Instead of the creation of ‘one nation’ over the last seven years giant wedge has been driven into the social and economic body to further divide society and the country. Of course, much of the systematic causes of division and inequality are long term but they have become ever more apparent over recent years, not least as a result of Government policies.
The U.K. is one the wealthiest countries in the world yet we have some great tardiness in the public realm. We have had recent governments that have sought to reduce the size and role of the state, to regulate, to cut public expenditure and to cut taxes especially for major corporations and the wealthiest. This approach has consequences as are all too apparent.
Polling and other evidence suggests that in many policy areas Labour’s policies were more popular than the Conservatives’. This was particularly the case in respect of ending austerity, and investing in public services and public infrastructure including housing. This seems to have recognised by politicians in all parties.
And now there is all to play for in a hung House of Commons and the House of Lords. This means that there is much merit in challenging Government policy and arguing for alternatives.
Popular opinion needs to make itself heard. Given the parliamentary arithmetic and the possibility of an early second general election well-argued and well-supported campaigns could have significant impact on policy, spending decisions and legislation. In the current political context, voluntary and community groups, charities and civil society organisations can be very influential if they act responsibly, wherever appropriately collectively and cleverly.
This offers a significant opportunity for the voluntary and community sector, charities and other civil society organisations. They have a duty to act. They should stand up and be counted. It should be possible to secure changes which could prevent the country moving further backwards into greater austerity, unfairness, squalor and inequality. They can promote an alternative of fairness, solidarity and opportunity. They should express a view on Brexit too.
Of course, charities must avoid being party political or partisan. They need to be careful not to be partisan but never-the -less they can be bold. They must not be timid. The voluntary and community sector, charities and other civil society organisations should not feel constrained by the fear of the Lobbying Act or public-sector grant and contract ‘gagging’ clauses. They should consider their missions and values, and the interests of their beneficiaries. In many cases this should lead them to speak up and to speak out; to challenge; to oppose where necessary; to offer an alternative vision for society; and to promote alternative policies.
Voluntary and community sector, charities and civil society organisations should seek allies in all parties including the Government Party. They must be mission driven, draw on evidence, and act as the voice of their beneficiaries.
Ultimately fundamental change will require a general election. Though, of course, it is not for the voluntary and community sector or for charities to advocate a new election. This is not their call any more than supporting specific political parties should be.
Many voluntary and community groups, charities and civil society organisations made their mark in the general election though sadly many chose not to. For those that were active up to 8th June my message is simple -“continue to campaign but do so in ways that will maximise your impact” and for those that sat the general election campaign out “mobilise and engage for the sake of your beneficiaries”.
We live in fluid and fast moving political times. This means that no one should be forgotten or excluded. Every one of us needs a voice and spokesperson (s). Some political parties and politicians will speak and act progressively but this will not be enough. Voluntary and community sector groups, charities and other civil society organisations can and should scrutinise government, and be ready and willing to speak up for the marginalised, for those who feel that they ‘have been left behind or outside’, for minorities and ultimately, because we are one people, for society.
Let’s hope that charities and others will act and not stand aside. I have confidence that there is an opportunity for social action at a local and national level on an unprecedented scale with the result that there will be change – and that this change will be for the better.