Phew – the Party Conference season is over – well for me at least. I’ve done my bit at the main UK conferences. The parties are all working some variant of the mending society, building resilience, supporting communities theme. So the ground, as ever, is fertile for the voluntary sector. The themes of personalisation, choice and control were ubiquitous. But so too was the theme of more for less, of doing things through other agencies and reducing the state. Again, the voluntary sector was praised to high heaven as a source of connectedness, localism and individual control.
Commentators have said how the electoral battle lines are being drawn up – but what struck me was how little difference there was on health and social care and even on poverty, social justice and equality. The grand rhetoric was different but each party seemed both to claim to be the party of the underdog and also to try to outdo the others in the savageness of the cuts that were being contemplated. What really surprised me was the lack of confidence everywhere, the sense of searching for answers and looking for ways of developing a vision, a vision that none of them has quite articulated. All the parties were clear what they didn’t want, and how the others would bring about some version of Armageddon – but the vision thing really was missing – certainly on the ground and amongst the delegates.
The best ideas and the most fruitful debates came in the fringes. There were some excellent ideas, as ever, from the voluntary sector. In fact it would have been possible to do nothing but go to voluntary sector fringes, with inspirational speakers, sprinkled throughout with politicians with varying degrees of access to power. The voluntary sector speakers weren’t short of ideas about how to achieve greater inclusion, how to use the skills and strengths of communities, about how to put personalisation into effect, how to use technology to provide access to information and advice, and how to use the energy and passion of volunteers to make the world a better place.
It’s good to be wanted; it’s good to have the voluntary sector’s contribution valued. But a little bit of vision and a real sense of aspiration from the politicians wouldn’t have come amiss.