London third sector organisations have successfully challenged government cuts in the high court. Lord Wei has reduced his free time spent working as big society tsar. Liverpool has pulled out of the big society pilot scheme. And now, according to a pugnacious article by Polly Toynbee in yesterday’s Guardian, Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the outgoing exec director of Community Service Volunteers, has used her retirement address to ‘deliver a torpedo right into the big society’s hull’.
Toynbee says that ‘an eruption’ is coming — and I sincerely hope she’s right.
I remember attending a third sector big society event just a few months ago and saying to someone that if all the sector did was think about how it would survive organisationally, then it — all of us — were doomed. What happens over the coming months — years, perhaps — will be decided not by sophisticated strategies for this, that and the other, but by the extent to which third sector organisations rediscover their politics, and choose to get their hands dirty.
Of course, for those in the sector who are senior managers, chief execs and employers, the pressure is great: they have to fight for their organisations, their service users, and the livelihoods of their staff. But, as Toynbee makes clear, the sector also has wider responsibilities — it is also here ‘to uphold the public good, and fight for the rights of the commons, by keeping government held to account’, as Deborah Doane, head of the World Development Movement is quoted as saying.
Civil society in all its diversity — social enterprises, charities, voluntary and community organisations, associations — touches millions. It draws on volunteers; it involves many more through membership; it provides services to countless numbers in local communities. For years we have been telling anyone who will listen that the sector is ‘close to its service users and the communities it serves’, that it is a force for social good, a reservoir of public trust. Well now we also have to rediscover how to be a force for political good. We have to capitalise on that public trust.
Some of this will be hard for social enterprises. Quite correctly, in some respects, we have become obsessed with our business operations — how we find new markets, reach new customers, establish new routes to market, how we understand and take our place in new market arrangements, such as GP commissioning.
I say quite correctly, because unless we do this we can’t survive. But now our principles have to stretch further than that. Put bluntly, we have to stand up and be counted; we have to show whose side we are on, and what we are prepared to do about it.
Frequently in recent months I have heard social entrepreneurs reminding themselves that they are here not just to do better business but also to change society for the better — a reassertion of what those underpinning values of mutuality and social solidarity mean in practice. I think all third sector organisations, irrespective of their legal structure, should be asking themselves two questions: (1) How do we survive as an organisation, continuing to deliver on our social mission and support the communities and users that we serve; and (2) how best (where, how, with whom, in what alliances) can we engage in a wider political sense, making sure we are part of a collective effort to defend services, defend communities, and be a force for social change.