The 2015 General Election Campaign has begun. In 2010, David Cameron campaigned for The Big Society causing widespread bafflement. Since then, The Big Society has silently shuffled off stage in a fog of embarrassment. Although no one knew what it was, the prospect of a more harmonious society could have appealed to left and right. The Big Society became toxic because Cameron made it political, alienating non-Tories and offending many Tories who are the backbone of volunteering.
There is no sign that any of the political parties are thinking about or are prepared to discuss a problem that will affect all of us. We will hear little about how our country is changing and what that means in terms of the way social welfare, health, education and culture are funded. The state is in retreat and not coming back anytime soon. Many will have to pay more for what was once provided by the state and the most vulnerable will have to rely increasingly upon an overstretched voluntary sector threatened by further cuts to public spending and declining charitable giving, down by 20% in a year according to the National Council For Voluntary Organisations. The political parties hope we will not notice but this failure of leadership will contribute to increasing feelings of disconnect and alienation, will weaken the voluntary sector further and could create a perfect storm of poverty at great cost to the country.
Last week, I participated in a panel discussion in London asking the question: How Can The City Be A Catalyst For The Development Of More Philanthropy In the UK? The answer is simple: only by becoming less selfish and more generous. Despite the continuing munificence of livery companies, some excellent initiatives such as the Funding Network and pilotlight, and the heroic generosity of a minority of the rich, the wealthy are conspicuously failing to provide the leadership, imagination, commitment and social conscience shown by their forbears.
Their vision and intelligence is on display in the exhibition Philanthropy: the City Story at The Charterhouse, London until 30 November. There you learn how in the past the successful used their wealth and power to create the vibrant civil society we enjoy today by investing in health, education, housing and culture. Today, the state has taken responsibility for funding many of life's essentials and it would be folly to argue that philanthropy can compensate for all declining public expenditure. However, charities have always operated at the margins, by identifying and solving problems no one else was prepared to tackle and by pioneering good practice. The best continue to do so, showing as much enterprise and initiative as those in the City who fail to support them. Now is the time to invest in what we should call the innovative rather than the voluntary sector and to encourage more of the wealthy to give more.
The government has no strategy or consistent policies to encourage more philanthropy and strengthen the voluntary sector. The opposition is silent. Charities are threatened with an anti-lobbying bill that will stop them campaigning during a general election. What is the government afraid of?
We need leadership from all political parties who should collectively endorse a national strategy for charities by introducing more incentives to encourage more giving, to honour more of the charitable and to end the scandal of knighting tax dodgers and the uncharitable, by introducing a values based curriculum that rewards school children with a national diploma for commitment to others.
We need more leadership from the rich and famous. In his interview with Jeremy Paxman, Russell Brand spoke up for the alienated young who do not vote scoring more than nine million hits on YouTube. But does Russell give? Perhaps he and Boris Johnson should give a lead by setting up a replica of New York's Robin Hood Foundation in London. The Foundation has one simple objective: to end poverty in New York. Last year, its donors gave $132 million. Imagine what that could do for the 40% of London's children who live in poverty.
Inequality continues to grow and public spending will fall whoever wins the election. The consequences are serious. Lobby your MP and explain why strengthening the voluntary sector is a priority. Too many of them don't get it.
John Nickson is the author of Giving Is Good For You; Why Britain Should Be Bothered And Give More.