The Lib Dems and the Voluntary Sector

by Stephen Tall on April 26, 2010

A few weeks back I was asked to write a brief article for Third Sector magazine, looking at the Lib Dems’ stance towards the voluntary and charitable sector. I’ve not seen the piece, but on the assumption it must by now have appeared, here’s my contribution:

You can sum up Liberal Democrat values in two words: fairness and freedom. And those two words are at the very heart of how party members see the role of this country’s thriving voluntary sector, a sector which shows civic Britain at its strongest. The way Charles Kennedy described it over a decade ago rings just as true today:

“I see a healthy voluntary sector as a sign of a healthy nation. It shows that there is a lively public spirit, and that citizens are willing to work together for the better of others. It builds powerful communities, in which citizens are used to challenging authority, taking power, and controlling their own lives.”

Put simply: freedom is essential for any of us who identify a problem in society to feel able to group together with other like-minded citizens, and take action to put it right. And it is through our common endeavours that we can build the fairer society we all long to see.

Easy words: what do they mean in reality? The Lib Dems are a bit different to the other two major parties. For Labour, the voluntary sector is simply an extension of the state, there to do the government’s bidding. For the Tories, the voluntary sector is the replacement for the state, there to allow it to cut government spending.

Lib Dems take a more pragmatic stand. Yes, the voluntary sector can play a valuable role in delivering public services, and in providing much-needed competition to state provision.

But it is fanciful – and dangerous – to expect volunteers to cover the range of essential services upon which some of our most vulnerable people depend. And in any case perhaps the most important role of the volunteers is in being able to reach the parts of society which the state cannot reach: additional to, not a replacement for, government action.

In my day-job away from politics, I’m an educational fundraiser. I’ve seen first-hand how the global economic crisis has increased the calls on charities at exactly the same time as charities have seen donations and income drop.

The Lib Dems have been the only party honest enough to make it clear that no area of public spending can be ring-fenced from the imminent funding squeeze. But that doesn’t mean government has no role to play. Whether through promoting more tax-effective charitable giving, or by encouraging those in and between jobs to put their talents to good use by volunteering, there is much that can and should be done.

What’s needed is an honest partnership between government and the voluntary sector, a partnership which places the freedom of individuals and fairness in society at the centre of all we seek to achieve together.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice – www.LibDemVoice.org – the leading independent website for Lib Dems.