The party conference season is underway. These are going to be last conferences before the 2015 general election. Therefore, they each will take on an added significance as policy is debated and announced.
Given the aftermath of the Scottish referendum; the economic fragility, the high levels of poverty and inequality, the consequences of public expenditure cuts and the prospect of more cuts to come, foreign policy, the growing level of public alienation from politics, and much more there will not be shortage of issues for delegates and political leaders to consider.
These delegates and the leaders will be bombarded by pressure groups, interest groups and individuals hoping to influence the agenda and policy, and sometimes simply to gain recognition. This is all part of the richness, openness and joy of party conferences.
Representatives of charities, the wider social sector, and the voluntary and community sector will be part of this democratic engagement. They will be arguing on behalf of their beneficiaries. They will be making the case for a strong social, charity, and voluntary and community sector or sectors. They will hopefully be contributing to debates and discussions on the kinds of society, economy and environment we wish to live in. Of course, they will be avoiding being partisan.
The voluntary and community, charity and social sector has a voice which should be articulated and heard on the full range of public policy. The sector has to be ready to speak up and to challenge policies that are detrimental to society; and individual organisations should also be prepared to speak up for the interests of their beneficiaries. Many of the progressive policy advances in this country have, in part, been as a consequence of active campaigns and interventions from the charity and voluntary and community sector. Too many regressive public policies have been advanced and implemented because the sector failed to oppose them with sufficient vigour.
It is vital that politicians and the party conferences do not see the sector simply as a service provider and not as political - albeit non-partisan - voice with a legitimate right and basis for contributing to the policy debate. This right to contribute ideas and evidence on policies and their impact includes the right to challenge and oppose. Therefore, it would be very symbolic and very welcome if all the parties were to make it very clear that they respect the right of charities, and voluntary and community organisations to be part of the wider policy discourse even when they, the politicians, may not like the messages that they are hearing. They should listen.
It is worth noting that the public holds charities in higher regard than it does politicians and government. There are many more people active in and contributing to charities, voluntary and community organisations and community social action than there are in membership of the political parties. The latter should acknowledge this reality.
The party conferences will be a buzz with discussion on the implications of the Scottish independence referendum including a potential federal UK state with greater devolution and decentralisation in England as well as to the three other nations. Any consideration of decentralisation which excluded the role and status of civil society would be deeply flawed and lacking in substance.
Community empowerment, active citizenship and participatory democracy rely on a positive facilitative and empowering approach by the state at a national and local level but importantly require a strong and effective civil society with equally strong, effective and active voluntary and community organisations.
Politics is about resource allocations and prioritisation but above all it must be about values and principles. It would be great if more political debate were to be more about values and principles and rather less about technocratic solutions.
There is much concern across the country about the impact of neo-liberal policies and the widening social and economic gaps. Equally there is a view that the state is not always going to be able and/or appropriate to provide all the answers, every service or support to communities and individuals. Again there is a need for a strong voluntary and community sector to offer an alternative to market based or a uniquely state based arrangements whilst arguing for equality, social justice and opportunity.
Charity, social sector, and voluntary and community sector organisations should be seeking to influence the balance that the individual political parties wish to pursue between markets, the state, individualism and civil society. They can offer an alternative form of socially driven collectivism and activism. They can empower and support the empowerment of individuals. To some extent they can attract alternative sources of finance and people resources. Therefore, to they have to be invited by the parties and politicians to contribute and make their voices heard.
Politics over the next few months and years will be challenging and the economic backdrop will ensure that this is the case. A new approach to dialogue between the political parties and a confident charity, voluntary and community, and social sector is going to be essential and could shape better politics and a better society.