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Civil Society and the General Election 2019

By Kristiana Wrixon, ACEVO head of policy

In my role in policy I have been through enough general elections, budgets and referendums to know that civil society is rarely explicitly discussed in manifesto or policy announcements, so I had low expectations about what we could expect to see this time around. However, even with my low bar, I was surprised by how little our sector features in the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestos.

Terms that specifically refer to our sector (like charity, NGO, civil society or social enterprise) are few and far between.

Examples include: Liberal Democrats saying they would require NGOs (and others working internationally) to report all instances of abuse overseas; Labour’s commitment to rethinking international development so that it moves away from ‘outdated notions of charity or imperialist rule’ and Conservatives promising to consult with NGOs (and others) on the date by which the ban on exporting plastic waste should be achieved. I agree with these things but civil society has a lot more to offer.

The sparsity of the manifestos is in direct contrast to the warm words of all three party’s charity spokespeople on Third Sector’s election special podcast. This raises again the question of whether the civil society minister post is simply too junior to put civil society’s needs at the centre of government.

But, does civil society need to be explicitly mentioned? If the issues that we care about are getting support, then does it matter if civil society itself is not? The Liberal Democrats manifesto focuses a lot on mental health, LGBTQ+ rights, and young people. Labour’s manifesto has sections specifically on tackling poverty and inequality, homelessness and the arts. Conservatives say they want to create a new civic infrastructure. All three parties emphasise the importance of the environment (although their proposals do differ). This is positive for charities that have worked hard to influence political priorities.

But I think it does matter that civil society is still failing to get more than a nose in. And that this is indicative of the fact that broadly speaking the role of the social sector is poorly understood by politicians. Civil society should be more prominent for two main reasons:

  • Not all charities, community groups or social enterprises are set up because of a defect of the state. Civil society is the PTA, the village hall, the youth group, the local choir, the community response in times of national emergency. Civil society is enabling, it creates a way for people to form genuine, deep relationships that create feelings of belonging and safety. If our political leaders are genuine about wanting to heal divisions in society then the social sector should be front and centre of their minds.
  • Civil society groups that do exist because of a defect in the state, for example, food banks, will need to be part of the process for finding solutions to these problems. Civil society volunteers and workers are embedded in the communities they serve, and solutions should be created by and for the people they impact. Any party looking to form a government should be thinking about how it can connect with our expertise and how it can reform the policymaking process to make it more democratic.

Earlier this month ACEVO released its own manifesto, ‘We Imagine Better’, in which we ask candidates and political parties to publish details of how they would work in partnership with civil society to instigate long-term, ambitious, cross-governmental plans that will enable every one living and working in the UK to have happy, fulfilling, well lives. We are a long way off this goal, but luckily one thing civil society is never lacking in is persistence!

While the lack of a vision on civil society is common to the three manifestos, more positively all three do make a commitment to maintaining 0.7% of GDP on international aid. But these are a couple of only a handful of similarities between the documents. These are wildly different manifestos containing substantively different views of our future as a country.

It is easy to imagine the Conservative manifesto being read by Boris Johnson, especially when the country is likened to ‘a lion in a cage’ for the last three and a half years or some ‘super-green supercar blocked in the traffic.’ There is heavy repetition of the Conservatives key line ‘Get Brexit done’. And while there are some new announcements, I was left with a feeling that by and large the Conservatives are happy to rest on their track record from the previous nine years.

Conversely, the policy proposals in Labour’s manifesto are all about change. While all three parties make spending commitments, Labour’s spending promises on education, the criminal justice system and local authorities are larger. Labour also proposes a new cabinet minister for employment rights, a new department for women and equalities with a secretary of state, and a new Emancipation Trust to educate around migration and colonialism. And, in my view, the manifesto language is a lot less bullish (no lions or super-cars).

On Brexit Labour proposes a public vote within six months of taking office with the option of remain or a Labour negotiated exit deal. The party is also proposing to bring local services in-house within the next parliament and repeal the Lobbying Act.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto top line is to stop Brexit by revoking Article 50. Other high billing priorities include expanding free childcare for all children with parents in work from nine months until they start school, to make mental health services 24-hours, the introduction of a ‘Skills Wallet’ giving adults £10,000 to spend on education and training courses that will allow them to gain new skills over the course of their working life.

The Liberal Democrats also promise to implement the Time for Change report which was authored by Sir Stephen Bubb when he was CEO at ACEVO and contains a pledge to support the development of social enterprises.

It is not possible to do justice to one, let alone three manifestos in a single blog but I hope that my reflections are helpful for those who don’t have time to read the documents.

Below I have listed sources of information, including manifesto policy comparisons and fact-checking that I recommend you also take a look at:

If there is something you think ACEVO should be doing for this general election then get in touch with Kristiana Wrixon.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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