The Independent View: The Liberal Democrats and civil society

It’s been a tricky 18 months for Lib Dems and charities. Of course the party has traditionally been close to the voluntary sector. Many current parliamentarians previously worked in it. But the Lobbying Act opened up a serious rift. Charities are now suffering the consequences of this illiberal and undemocratic limit on their free speech. With an election fast approaching, how has the party tried to heal the wounds?
This year at ACEVO – the social leaders’ network – we decided to do go beyond the usual third sector manifesto-writing and ask a range of Lib Dems to set out in detail their vision for civil society and politics. The result was The Yellow Book of the Voluntary Sector, a book of essays we published at conference in Glasgow. Its contributors show promise in their view of the voluntary sector, but there’s still some way to go.

Nick Clegg’s foreword was clear that “Whitehall does not have all the answers and very often it is the charities out on the front line who best understand how to help their communities”. All very well.

But charities will be confused by what he said next. Despite having personally voted for the Lobbying Act he claims “the sector must also continue to make itself heard in the debate over Britain’s future – whether on welfare reform, international development; whether on protecting our natural environment to promoting more diversity in our politics”. It’ll be hard to do this while the Act is in force.

The other essays show a clear awareness of charities’ ability to promote political engagement, specially among young people. Other contributors – including Ibrahim Taguri PPC, Kelly-Marie Blundell PPC and Norman Lamb MP – show that they see charities as integral to tackling child poverty, welfare dependency and the ageing population.

Martin Horwood MP tackles the free speech issue head on. He’s acutely aware that “Liberal Democrat philosophy is made for the third sector,” and that Lib Dems won’t pander to the Tory backbenchers who don’t see political campaigning as legitimate for charities to do. But he also recognises that Lib Dems haven’t had terribly much to say about charities recently. The party have no official third sector spokesman. When Danny Alexander announced more than £400 million to increase NHS service provision this winter, he didn’t mention charities’ ability to reduce demand on frontline services – and the fact they can improve the quality of personalised care all round.

So the contributions to the Yellow Book show that the Lib Dems are positive in principle, but not yet in practice, towards the voluntary sector. If Nick Clegg really supports charity campaigning, this book shows he’ll have support from within his own ranks. Martin Horwood says explicitly that his first priority would be to review the impact of the Lobbying Act on free speech. If the Lib Dems are in government again from next May, they should reignite their historical links to a sector whose values of social justice and citizen action it should wholeheartedly support. Let’s hope their promises are followed through.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* George Bangham is Policy Officer at ACEVO, the social leaders network’

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2 Comments

  • Tony Dawson 15th Oct '14 - 4:18pm

    Wasn’t there a Minister for ‘Civil Society’?

  • Simon Banks 16th Oct '14 - 8:41pm

    Well said. We may at times be in danger of forgetting it, but the idea of free association and co-operation to change the world is in the soul of Liberalism. That is also the ethos of the voluntary sector, though some large voluntary organisations, under pressure from Tory and Labour governments and now the coalition, have become more and more like quite aggressive businesses, seeking if not to maximise shareholder handouts, to increase business and market share.

    They tend not to be the most spirited campaigners.

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