A four month ‘window’ to promote community social action
March 8, 2016
Over the next four months there will be unprecedented political activity and manoeuvres. This provides a huge opportunity for community and voluntary organisations – you should not be shy in ‘seizing the moment’.
As politicians campaign for the EU referendum in June, local elections in May, and police and crime commissioner (PCC) elections, they need to be questioned and challenged on their policies.
A period in advance of any election commonly offers such opportunities, but the next few months offer an amazing confluence of activity at a time when, in England at least, the major political parties are engaged in internal debate.
My advice to community and voluntary sector organisations is to take the opportunity to offer policy ideas to both candidates and parties, at national and local levels.
The fact is that the interests of all those committed to stronger local communities are highly relevant to all the upcoming elections and the referendum. If the UK were to leave the European Union, there would be considerable implications for communities, especially if European Union funding were no longer available. Policing and criminal justice policy and practice is fundamental to strong communities, and local government is so important for the sector that it would be major omission if it did not seek to engage and question candidates on their values, understanding and policies.
‘If the UK were to leave the European Union, there
would be considerable implications for communities’
You would expect candidates for councillor, mayoral and PCC elections to actively seek the opinion of the community and voluntary sector but alas, in my experience, such approaches are rare. Therefore, the sector and communities must be proactive and set the pace with candidates, referendum campaign groups and political parties.
Naturally, charities have to avoid being partisan, but they can publish facts and evidence-based commentaries. And they should not allow themselves to be gagged by politicians, the media or their own inertia or timidity.
I would expect the sector to wish to raise issues around cohesion, social justice, public services and expenditure, and building social capital and capacity alongside, and as a foundation to, economic growth. They should initiate discussions around funding, commissioning and procurement, and involvement in local decision-making. However – a warning! On these latter points, it is vital that sector organisations do not appear too self-serving but demonstrate authenticity and their value to communities.
Given the government’s over-arching austerity agenda, the voluntary and community sector has a right (and I would suggest, a duty) to question how candidates for council or PCC roles intend to approach the topic of cuts: what will they prioritise for expenditure; what criteria will they apply to considering alternative options; how will they involve communities, service users and the sector in options appraisal.
As the state shrinks, local organisations will have to play a greater role in speaking up for communities and individuals, and in service delivery. This requires a sophisticated discourse with both elected officials and candidates. The sector has to be in control and determine what it will and won’t do, and never be bullied or cajoled by public officials or bodies. Politicians need to understand the sector and its ‘red lines’ and capacity and response before it is too late. Again, this demonstrates the need for dialogue.
Between now and 23rd June, the voluntary and community sector should ensure that such dialogue occurs. It has to shape the agenda and manifestos. It has to counter other strong lobbying interests. It has a duty to speak up for its beneficiaries and a fairer, more socially just and equal society based on strong communities and accountability. I believe that there is a will and an opportunity to make a difference but it requires swift and bold action from across civil society and the voluntary and community sector.
Will this be forthcoming? I very much hope so.