The voluntary and community sector cannot duck out of the political debate. It should expose and challenge policies 2019 is going to be an eventful year and one when we will require the voluntary and community sector to draw on all reserves (and I don’t primarily mean our financial reserves – if we have any) and our resolve to stay true to our missions and values. Unless there is significant political change, austerity is set to continue. Likewise, the impact of the introduction of universal credit and other “welfare reforms” is unfortunately going to continue to create still further hardship for too many people, families and communities. So, sadly, demand for our sector’s services will continue to grow inexorably.
Brexit has paralysed domestic politics and prevented sufficient attention being given to poverty, inequality and the appalling state of our divided society, which was so well described by the UN report into extreme poverty in the UK. Every model of Brexit will have a negative economic impact, with dire consequences, including deep economic harm and greater austerity, increased inequality between and within regions and communities, more xenophobia and worse.
The VCS cannot duck out of the current political debate on Brexit. It should expose and challenge the policies and social and economic conditions that in part led to the 2016 referendum result. Over the next few weeks, it can act and speak in accordance with the interests of communities and with its values. It is well positioned to call on politicians to act in the national interest and avoid further harm to our communities and their futures.
If Brexit is just one immediate challenge for the sector, there are many others. At the Navca conference in December, I spoke of my hope that Navca, its members and our local social action movement should be bold and radical. I had in mind not just the strategic and governance review that Navca is about to launch, but, more significantly, the movement’s duty to speak up with and for communities. I said that we should not simply “pass on the other side” when seeing injustice, unfairness, social exclusion and the negative consequences of public policy choices. In 2019 there can be no excuse for avoiding challenging, opposing and, where
appropriate, proposing alternative policies and programmes.
The VCS always has and continues to respond with action as well as campaigning. Food banks are sadly essential, but should not be necessary in the world’s sixth-wealthiest country. Thus, we should establish and operate food banks while challenging the policies that create the conditions that require them. The litany of policies the sector could be challenging is long and there is no need to recite it here.
The VCS has a role in challenging underlying ideologies and thinking that lead to harmful and divisive policies too. It can argue for a smart and effective state, high-quality accessible public services funded through progressive taxation, a reversal of the wholesale and unchallenged application of market models for public services, a curb on corporate excesses, socially responsible entrepreneurship, social inclusion and greater social mobility and equality. The VCS also has an important role and voice with which to address a wide range of environmental, sports and cultural agendas.
The VCS should also make the case that it is the natural ally of local government and a core partner in place shaping, community wealth building and democratic renewal. And with absolute conviction, it should not accept being the seen as a convenient alternative when the public sector withdraws from providing a service, any more than a meek and acquiescing contractor. The VCS should be respected, as should its voice.
Crucially, in 2019 the VCS must be its own fiercest critic and be the first to call out shoddy practice, egotism and inefficiency in its member organisations. As I stated earlier in this article, Navca is about to embark on the development of a three-year strategy and an associated review and revision of our governance arrangements. I cannot predict the outcomes, but I am confident that they will be radical and driven by a desire to be an exemplar national movement for local social action modelling the approach and addressing the issues described above.
If local social action and indeed the wider VCS is not about radical and authentic action and campaigning, it might not have (and, indeed, might not deserve to have) a vibrant and respected future.