Civil society

Dan Corry, Gerry Stoker

Progressives have never been entirely happy with civil society – unless it is packaged in a nostalgic way around trade unions, friendly societies and co-ops.

For many on the left it reeks of paternalist charity, of the rich deigning to support the poor, handing  down a small part of their excess pay and profit; the ill-gotten rewards from capitalism used  to give a few crumbs to those among the poor they consider deserving of their largesse.

Or alternatively they see is as being at the root of conservatism, the very underpinning of the never changing state that Burke’s little platoons conjure up so well. Doing useful things, gently and passively, but defending and bolstering, rather than challenging, the unfair status quo.

And for some, civil society challenges or even undermines the state and its employees; it offers free or cheaper services undercutting public provision; it is the antithesis of a state providing universal services (you can’t run social services on sponsored marathons); and it is the preserve of annoying do-gooders and self–proclaimed representatives of the community, not properly elected representatives with a democratic  mandate.

This is a long list of suspicions that only a few ‘grass roots’ civil society institutions and radical campaigning groups are exempted from. But this really is a travesty of the truth – and most of us know this.

The values of civil society are very much aligned with progressive values. It gives meaning to people’s lives, its expresses mutuality and it creates a dynamic of creativity and autonomy. As we argue in our new pamphlet, ‘If civil society did not exist, progressives would have to invent it.’

Of course civil society has failings. It is almost by definition, not good at creating the same level of service everywhere in the country. It focuses on areas where people want to volunteer and give money not necessarily on those areas that matter in some objective sense. And some of it is just not that good and there are neither commercial nor democratic incentives to drive improvement. But we are not asking civil society to do everything – the state can play a role in some of these areas – and in any case the state is often just as weak at some of these things as civil society.

So as we respond to a tough time for the centre left and to the divisions in society that the Brexit vote revealed in all their glory, it is time to put policy for civil society centre stage – not just filling the gaps when the state or private sector can’t deliver.

Policy ideas that we present include some that – ironically – call for changes in the centre of government: a strong voice in the cabinet, a test to see whether the sector can deliver without the need for top down approaches (as in the National Citizen Service – which civil society organisations like the Scouts could have done); an obligation on new metro mayors to really engage with civil society; an end to over sized outsourcing contracts that exclude much of the sector from even getting to the starting line.

We call for more support for community development type activities with councils encouraged — or even funded — to bring back versions of the old community development officers; planning policy reformed to give due weight to allowing a focus on creating spaces where people interact, get to know their neighbours and find other people to associate with; and an external  review of the  way the legislation that helps community groups move forward on taking assets over, giving them rights to bid to take over services and so on is working, combined with an obligations on councils to maintain publicly available registers of assets they hold.

And we need a dedicated fund to support civil society and its ability to build social capital where this is most needed. We suggest that a fund of serious – but not staggering – proportions should be created to achieve this, as well as using something akin to the 0.7 per cent of GDP for overseas aid to stop funding disappearing from these areas whenever life becomes a bit tough fiscally. And we want a review of the way existing tax reliefs work for the sector – to see if we could design them better in aggregate to achieve more.

But it is not all about government and what it does. We want the private sector to become more pro-social and so support corporate governance changes to that end as well as ‘nudge’ approaches to improve their behaviours in various areas. In addition we float the idea that business—particularly smaller ones—could be offered local rate relief against spending on supporting local civic activity that benefits the community and that companies that have assets that they could let civil society use either in an ad hoc or more regular way should be encouraged to be transparent about what they are offering.

This is the way progressives should answer the disquiet revealed by Brexit vote. And its a way of re-connecting ourselves to the real lives of our citizens. It does not solve all our issues – how to fund health care, improve our schools and rebuild our economy in a more balanced way – but even the mind-set it implies would be powerful in regenerating a modern, progressive impulse. Lets see if we are up for it.

Image: Emma Vandemaele

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