Helen Barnard: Civil society traditions of conservatism are being overlooked in this leadership race


Helen Barnard is director of research and policy at Pro Bono Economics.

Ballots are beginning to land on the doormats of Conservative Party members. The leadership race is seen by some as a struggle for the heart of the party – a chance to truly define modern conservatism.

Underlying this is the question of whether the electoral coalition that won an overwhelming majority in 2019 can be sustained without the double factor of Brexit and Boris.

Character and communication are as important as politics in determining how members move, and it’s fair to assume that political positions laid out in the heat of the moment don’t necessarily predict everything the next government will do. .

But the issues each candidate chooses to focus on, as well as their policy prescriptions, provide significant indications of the direction in which they want to take the country.

The issues that have received by far the most airtime are the timing of tax cuts and the role of public borrowing in financing responses to the cost of living crisis and measures to improve the growth. Other issues, such as housing, immigration and the NHS, received more attention as the competition progressed, although they still lag far behind.

But, so far, leadership candidates and those who interview them seem to have overlooked a huge part of the conservative tradition, which has always viewed solutions to national challenges as not just state or business, but like bubbling communities and families.

In this tradition, civil society and charities are seen as playing a crucial role in building social capital and resilience, innovating and empowering communities to create their own responses to the issues they face.

At first, the Johnson government was criticized for focusing its leveling agenda too narrowly on hard infrastructure (such as new rail lines and bridges) and neglecting the importance of social infrastructure (services such as childcare). children and training, and community groups, spaces and relationships that support community life).

The Leveling Up white paper marked a turning point, setting goals that went beyond compensation and productivity and encompassed well-being and community pride. His analysis of the causes of “left behind” places highlighted the role of social, human and institutional capital, as well as physical and financial capital.

The white paper was light on concrete policies, but gave much hope that it had laid the groundwork for an approach that could finally make headway on the UK’s huge geographical inequalities.

During the first televised debate, both candidates pledged to continue the upgrade program. But the narrowness of the leadership debate so far signals a potential risk that leadership is taking a step back in its conception of how to achieve this.

Falling back on a narrower focus on taxes and government spending would be a mistake. There is a huge opportunity to be seized to harness the power and ingenuity that resides within communities, as well as the charities and groups that build trust and bonds between people. The vaccine rollout is a stark example of what can be achieved when the public sector, charities and businesses combine their resources.

In the three televised debates, none of the candidates mentioned the role of charities or civil society, despite being patrons of charities themselves (Rishi Sunak of the National Osteoporosis Support Group, Leyburn Brass Band and the Wensleydale Wheels Community Transport Project, and Liz Truss of the Ulysses Trust, a Cadet Force volunteer and charity).

There was a fleeting mention in the second debate, when an audience member talked about relying on a charity for support for his cancer treatment. Even then, however, the discussion immediately focused on NHS performance. There was no recognition of the vital role played by the social sector, both in the direct provision of health care and in preventing future demand through its wider role in communities.

The competition to be seen as Margaret Thatcher’s true heir understandably sparks fierce debate over taxes, sound money and the role of the state. But Britain’s first female Prime Minister had strong views on the vital role of voluntary organizations and philanthropy, and on the importance of the state supporting and enabling communities to act for themselves through the through civil society.

This tradition is very much alive in the festival. Survey shows the vast majority of Conservative MPs and councilors have contact with charities and community groups and recognize their important role in local and national life. In the same way, 84% of Conservative voters believe that charities and community groups play an important role in our society.

When the new Prime Minister takes office in September, he will quickly have to deal with the cost of living crisis, which looks even more worrying after the Bank of England’s latest inflation forecast of 13% and a year-long recession. . They are fortunate to be able to tap into the ideas and ingenuity of countless charities and community groups, supported by philanthropists, corporate and public donations, and government grants.

Along with the big calls they will have to make on taxes and the fall budget, the next prime minister would also do well to strengthen his government’s ties with these vital civil society actors and increase the ability to leverage philanthropic investments where they are most needed.

Without this, there is a real risk that their response to our grand national challenges will be paralyzed and unstable – relying exclusively on the state and business, not bolstered by the third pillar of civil society.


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