I listened with interest to the Minister’s warm words, but I suspect that we will hear much this afternoon about the gap between the rhetoric and the reality in the Government’s approach to civil society. Ever since they were elected, this Government’s method has been to underfund, undermine and sideline the sector at every opportunity. That is a tragedy, because civil society, including the charities, volunteers and community groups that are part of it, play a critical role in reconnecting the communities that this Government have divided.
There is a real mistrust of politics and politicians in our country, which is not surprising. A decade of austerity has ripped the heart out of communities and seen the destruction of shared community spaces. Good jobs have been lost to automation. Once thriving industrial towns have been left to decline. Inequality has grown wider while the economy has grown bigger, because a few at the top have grown richer at the expense of everyone else.
The politics that did all that needs to change. People want back control over their own lives. It is no longer enough for any group of politicians to stand up and tell people to trust them to have all the answers. Trust cannot be a one-way street. People will not trust politicians until politicians show that they trust people enough to open power up to them directly. We need a new politics that is big enough to meet the challenges of our age and responsive enough to meet the specific needs of every community.
At the heart of that are questions about power. Who has it? Who does not? How do we open it up to everyone? In this digital age, with a world that is changing so fast, it is clear that we cannot solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s thinking. That is where civil society comes in, because it offers a way for people to participate on their own terms. It connects communities so that they can exercise the power that lies latent within them. Community-led organisations are a key part of how we can make our system more responsive and more democratic by rebuilding politics around people and putting real power in people’s hands. It once felt like the Conservative party was on to that with its big society agenda, but it withered before our eyes into a crude attempt to replace paid professionals with unpaid volunteers. Now, the Conservatives do not talk about it at all.
Let us look at how much has vanished under this Government: 428 day centres, 1,000 children’s centres, 600 youth centres, 478 public libraries and countless lunch clubs, befriending services, community centres and voluntary groups. Those places where communities came together to act have all gone.