Future of the Community and Voluntary Sector

As a Radio Free Brighton volunteer and supporter of the Brighton New Left Initiative, I was happy to be invited to Transforming Local Infrastructures (TLI), a new Community and Voluntary Sector (CVS) project designed to empower and improve the many community, voluntary and charity run groups in Brighton. It is at a consultation stage at the moment – or ‘Gateway’ period – and the meeting was a friendly, if sometimes patronising, exercise in getting feedback from some of the many groups who might benefit from such a scheme.

These CVS groups do much of the day-to-day work with some of the City’s most vulnerable and destitute people. Drug addiction, mental health issues, homelessness, domestic violence and child poverty are just a few examples of the more important areas in which service provision has been to the community and voluntary sector. Despite the best efforts of the local NHS, local housing associations and local council initiatives to be more pro-active in providing more cohesive and wide-ranging support services, pressure from budget cuts and re-direction of administrative priorities has meant that the services provided by these charitable and voluntary-run organizations are more important than ever before.

Their work, quite frankly, often goes under the radar. Under-funded, under-paid, and under-appreciated, they exist precariously from year to year, with only the largest groups being able to plan and deliver long-term strategies in the community. Despite the pressures faced, people in the voluntary sector go about their work with a quiet dignity, accepting of the fact that when it comes to issues of funding, having a say on policy, or even just acceptance that their work is crucial, they remain a low priority for a variety of political groups, parties and organizations. There is a sense that their voice and needs do not matter.

The TLI initiative, then, is an attempt to address this lack of attention and care; pooling together resources, knowledge, and access to funding. It is a self-created project amongst CVS groups to increase the flow of the two things this sector needs the most; money and information. However, after rounds of presentation slides, group work, and feedback sessions, their was a sense of vacuity to the whole process. Much of the time was spent focusing on the ‘structures’ of organization and membership of the new initiative, rather than on improving the quality of provision of the community and voluntary sector. Couched in a bureaucratic and systems-led terminology, the afternoon brought to light many of the difficulties facing the sector. Of particular note was the way in which organizational and funding pressures made it difficult to harness the progressive energy of the workers and practitioners of the community and voluntary sector, who are faced with a constant and uneasy negotiation of scant material and financial resources.

The sector has no choice but to rely on mainstream funding bodies, and therefore the social, economic and political priorities of those bodies. In practice this has meant being subject to the strictures and diktats of increasingly neo-liberalised ideas of organizational efficiency. In order to get the funding, they need to tailor applications towards a series of pre-given funding objectives. Moreover, they need considerable resources and time just to put an application together; often running into 20,000 words and more, with detailed cost-price breakdowns and justifications on the basis of market need and socioeconomic data.

As a result of these conditions, CVS groups necessarily adopt the language, and to a lesser extent, the organizational mentality, of the funding bodies and consultants they rely on for the major part of their income streams. It is a language that was harmonised in the early 21st century, when a combination of New Labour commitment to expanding the role of the ‘3rd sector’ and the dramatic expansion of EU-funded regeneration projects tied the UK community and voluntary sector to a particular trajectory of development. It is a language that now permeates the public and private sectors as well as the Community and Voluntary sector. On the one hand, the gravy train years of funding of the 3rd sector, which came to a abrupt end following the financial crisis of 2008 (and other associated factors with the two key EU funding bodies, the European Social Fund and European Regional Development Fund) brought an unprecedented amount of revenue for the 3rd sector, allowing charities and community groups to significantly broaden the scope of their activities and provide better delivery to those in society who needed it most. From education and training to childcare and housing support, there was an all too brief moment when the 3rd sector emerged as a well organised and well funded arena, capable of filling the void of provision left by the public and private sector .

Yet on the other hand, years of reliance on expertise provided by the private sector has meant a shift towards a mentality to ‘saying the right things’ rather than delivery itself. The meeting was replete with ‘inputs,’ ‘outcomes,’ flow-structures, and ultimately devoid of any real empathy with the daily struggles faced in the community and voluntary sector or the more pressing struggles of the people who rely on their delivery. Underpinning it all was an implicit assumption that the ‘best practice’ developed by consultants was the only way to secure the resources and income needed to continue with the delivery of services. In the absence of other choices or methods to ensure their continuation, CVS groups are thus caught in a process which has effectively brought a neo-liberal organizational and service delivery mentality to their processes.

A Different Sort of Politics

During the three hour meeting and feedback sessions, it was apparent that there was little or no involvement of any of the radical left groups in Brighton in the delivery of the services provided by the CVS groups. This made me think about recent developments on the radical left in Britain, and the potentially vast coalition of people being affected by Britain’s retreat into an ever more bleak economic and political landscape. The people who run these groups and charities, and the people who they work tirelessly for – often the most marginalised – don’t seem to be of importance to either the government, or, unfortunately, the British Left of today. Hardly anyone in the meeting- project managers, care workers and son on- had any affiliation with the radical left, and indeed only a few had even been involved in unions. Their workplace, evidently, is not a site where the traditional method of developing working class solidarity can be possible.

In the Brighton NLI group, we have had discussions and ideas about how we can become more practically involved in the actual, on-the-ground, delivery of crucial CVS services to the most marginalised. Examples from the Black Panthers and Hamas have been given, whereby the political organization itself becomes the arbiter and provider of key services to the dispossessed and excluded.

Whilst the ACI concentrates on (re-)creating an anticapitalist movement, realigning the disparate forces of the radical left, we should also remember that there is more to social and political transformation than calling ‘solidarity’ with the marginalised. Whilst demonstrations and meetings about how we can forge left Unity have their place, and indeed are crucial for the longer term vision of changing the political, economic and socio-cultural landscape of Britain, we should also be sensitive to the fact that we can and should also change practices on the ground by working with groups outside the traditional spectrum of left groups.

In my opinion, the ACI should start to make more coherent partnerships with the community and voluntary sector. We should, over time, develop means of supporting these groups, and use their work and understanding of the local community to gain a better idea of the discontent and despair that occurs on a daily basis for the most uncared for in society- truly developing a movement from below. To give you an example, one of the organisations, MOSAIC, works to improve the social and economic opportunities of black and mixed ethnicity families. It is a specific community organization that works for a specific community who face unique sets of issues. MOSAIC acts as a forum and physical space to ‘create safe, supportive, anti-racist, culturally diverse environments and represent their interests.’ Racism in the education system is one of the key concerns. They are also in the process of developing a resource library with texts that support their multiculturalist, anti-racist aims.

The concerns and activity of MOSAIC should chime with the interests and ideals of the ACI; indeed they should be of key concern to all radical left groups. Yet we are nowhere to be found during either in the delivery of the services, nor in the formation of policy. We are, alas, absent from a vital, day-to-day process in confronting racism and the effect it has on these communities, and through this absence we miss the opportunity to ascertain from discriminated groups their actual concerns and interests.

The radical left and the ACI are committed to anti-racist, anti-fascist politics. We mobilise with genuine energy and concern for the struggle against groups like the EDL. This is all positive, and indeed has contributed the failure of the radical right over the last year in Britain. But what the work of CVS groups like MOSAIC show, is that the struggle against racism also exists in a far less visible way, rooted in the entire structures of society that are as yet to disappear. The discrimination faced by families of black and mixed parent heritage may not manifest in a manner recognisable to radical left groups. It is all well and good holding seminars about the Trotskyist influences of the Black Panthers, and the work done might increase awareness of racism, but it is groups like MOSAIC who actually do the work on the ground, giving support to victims and crucially gaining empathy with those facing discrimination.

I would argue that this applies to other community and voluntary groups working in drug addiction and housing. Again, the radical left will have perspectives on homelessness, poverty, drugs, but what are we actually doing on the ground? The TLI meeting showed me that without our involvement, a whole world of the community and voluntary sector are being brought into the domain of a compliant neo-liberal restructuring, left to their own devices and reliant on the help of private consultants.

Getting Involved

Direct involvement in the community and voluntary sector will have a number of benefits for the Brighton NLI, and perhaps also other local ACI branches. Firstly, and most importantly, it gives us a chance to listen to and ascertain more clearly both what pressures these groups face on a day to day basis, as well as their own interests and aspirations for the future. Secondly, close involvement will introduce the politics of the ACI to community and voluntary sector practioners, allowing the critique of capitalism and calls for broad-based radical left unity to be understood and empathised with, rather than forced upon them. It may, in the long term, provide for the development a solid basis of support rooted in the community and voluntary sector, who look towards the NLI/ACI for support, advocacy and representation. In other words, the community and voluntary sector is one where the project of the ACI can be imprinted amongst hitherto unreached groups. And finally, it gives the opportunity for the ACI to begin to develop new and experimental ways of doing politics.

If the Brighton New Left Initiative can create a network of CVS groups around it- whereby we participate directly in maintenance and delivery of their provision, then this ‘model’ can be repeated throughout ACI groups around the country. Within each network, the local ACI group can develop a distinct understanding of the conditions of the local community- their needs, and political/economic interests for the future- and involve CVS practioners in the actual processes of the ACI as well. Furthermore, it might be a good way of attracting new supporters, for example people who want to enter left wing politics through being involved in the community, rather than through ideology or academia.

This kind of local, slightly autonomous method is not in contradistinction to the higher aims of the ACI at the moment; in fact I believe it precisely fulfils the call for a greater awareness of the conditions and pressures mounting upon British society, to understand how neo-liberal capitalism under an austerity-led programme of cuts and retreat of key services to the most vulnerable affects and destroys the emancipatory consciousness and rationale that lays at the heart of many community and voluntary sector groups. We need to combat not just the cuts, but the entire ideational and material apparatus that allows capitalism to prosper, recover from crisis and sediment its values and norms amongst society. Even if fighting against the cuts restores funding streams towards CVS groups, the underlying organizational mentality of a PR-obsessed, ‘best practice’ business model measured through quantifiable outputs will remain unless we in the NLI, or ACI, take the struggle into the most affected layers of society.

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3 Comments

  1. March 5, 2013 at 10:50 am · Reply

    hi Ishan
    You make a number of important points about the relationship of the left to the community and voluntary sector in Brighton and Hove. I’d just like to make a coupe of points if I may. Firstly I think that you’ll find that the majority of people the event were decidedly ‘of the left’, but it would be a very mixed bag of views and affiliations. Secondly it’s important not to be trapped into using that great rag bag phrase, ‘the third sector’, which in reality represents a vast range of activities and types of organisations, the most important (and the least talked about) is the local community groups that are led by local people for local people, that do not employ anyone and have tiny budgets, these include resident and tenant association, saturday football clubs, older peoples activity groups, activity groups for children and young people arts groups, local action groups, you name it. The thing is these types of groups consist of something like 70% of the so called ‘third sector’. Finally I’d like to say something about community development, which is key for me. I got involved in CD because I was and am a socialist, and that working with and supporting communities would and has played an important role in making local communities better places to live and, to some extent improved the way we are governed, at least locally. For me at its heart CD is about helping communities gain greater power over what happens to them and within them, it’s about extending and enriching democracy. It is therefore at its heart, a political activity. On the whole the left has been rubbish a thinking about this stuff like this, its about time it changed.

  2. Ishan Cader
    March 7, 2013 at 4:15 pm · Reply

    Hi Colin,

    Many thanks for your considered response. I agree that there is an issue with using terms like the ‘third sector’- and I also want to prioritise the work of the local community groups the most. I prefer the term ‘Community and Voluntary sector,’ and in some way wanted to criticize the New Labourite/management approach where there use jargon like the third sector.
    Wholeheartedly agree with your last point as well- the aim of the article was an attempt to address the shortfall of radical left though/practice around local community groups. In part i think its because they are perceived to hold no political ‘weight’ and therefore low down on the list of priorities of who to engage with and create links with. My argument is that as a part of a whole new way of ‘doing’ politics and transforming society, the left needs to be much closely involved and eventually be in a position to produce and carry out policy around the CVS through its own institutions

  3. Pete b
    January 5, 2014 at 1:31 am · Reply

    Good to read about a consideration of the political meaning of the cvs. I work in a neo liberal housing association, in its care and support devision. Rather than using its surplus to reinvest in community initiatives, it is chasing contracts in the further privitisation of nhs, council and probation services.
    I am a steward and have sought to challenge this misuse of “not for profit” status. The union though is more interestedin milking a growing membership and providing representation.
    It seems that the larger providers sweep up the smaller ones creating new corporations rather than contributing to a project of a community voice.
    User involvement is there in the list of must dos, but there are very few examples of the users of the services getting organised enough to challenge the corporate agendas or even to have an infependant voice against the big cuts coming in.
    Yes, massive diference from a genuine community sector, based on the communities and their needs.
    Would be very interested to see how things can be changed. I still have to hope that the union we are building can be a positive part of this.
    Pete b

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