Andrew O'Brien: What is the legacy of the Cameron years for charities?

14 Sep 2016 Voices

Andrew O’Brien reflects on the relationship between the voluntary sector and the Conservative Party during the Cameron years, and considers what the future holds under Theresa May.

We all start off believing in something, and I started off believing in ‘Dave’. Whether ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’ (RIP 2009) or hugging a husky (RIP 2015), I was on board.

It probably doesn’t feel like it now, given how many years have passed, but back then it was incredibly refreshing to see a Conservative leader who was not only at ease with himself, but at ease with the modern world. Wiser heads often reminded me: “Ah yes, well I remember when Tony was elected…” but before they could continue I would cut them off: “David’s different.”

The thing that most excited me as a young Cameroon (sadly, I was never one of Cameron’s cuties) was the ‘Big Society’. I knew it wasn’t really Dave’s idea. If anything, David Willets should get much of the credit for keeping the flame alive.

But there was something about the concept that made sense and I was keen to support it when I was lucky enough to get a job in Parliament working for a Conservative MP.

‘New Labour’ had tried public sector managerialism to death. Now was the time to unleash the power of communities - through charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises.

New Labour had sought to create a ‘Third Sector’, but the Big Society seemed to suggest a move towards becoming the voluntary sector becoming the ‘First Sector’ (no groans, please).

As Cameron himself said in his 2005 NCVO Hinton Lecture: “I don't think that the voluntary sector has an important role to play. I believe that the voluntary sector has the crucial role to play.”

The passing of David Cameron appears to mark the end of the era when government thought that voluntary sector, the third sector, civil society, (whatever you want to say) was a major political and policy player. Theresa May’s decision to move the Office for Civil Society from the Cabinet Office (nominally at the heart of government) to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, sums up this transition.

Big Society needed more time and focus

A large part of this story is about a gap in expectations. On the one hand, I think it is fair to say that the government underestimated how hard it would be to really open doors for voluntary organisations to drive policy change, level the playing field in public service delivery and empower communities.

Piecemeal interventions were put in place, but nothing comprehensive was attempted. This isn’t just a moan about money (although all reforms cost money in the short term), but it is also about time and focus.

The ‘Big Society’ needed more time and more persistence.

It also needed to be driven from the centre, i.e. Downing Street, if it was ever going to work. By the time Cameron realised the need for a strong delivery team within government it was too late for the ‘Big Society’.

Charities expected too much

From the voluntary sector’s perspective, I think that we expected a bit too much from government.

A clarion call like the ‘Big Society’ was not a set of comprehensive policy proposals. It was a political vision, which started with the premise that people were essentially good, if only they were given the tools to shape their own futures. It was really up to the voluntary sector to force the government to be bold.

I was in no way at the heart of government at this time, merely a lowly researcher for a Tory MP. Yet I remember distinctly how even in early 2011 people I met within voluntary sector already thought that the government had drifted and the ‘Big Society’ was going nowhere.

The ‘Big Society’ wasn’t widely popular in the Tory Party. Most Conservatives didn’t get it, and they still don’t. Cameron was relying on the voluntary sector and others to make the case, (both in terms of policy and politically) – but I often got the impression that the sector was waiting for Godot.

Unsurprisingly, he never came and Cameron moved on to other things where he felt like he had more enthusiastic political backing.

Some successes of the Cameron years

Perhaps the biggest voluntary sector success of the Cameron years was the 0.7 per cent aid target.  

This was driven by Cameron and Osborne working with the voluntary sector to build a strong political consensus within Westminster – despite popular and media pressure to junk it. Voluntary organisations saw an opportunity, but they didn’t bank on it being delivered unless they pushed it, and pushed it hard.  

Of course, this is quite a simplistic view on history. And some will argue (and with merit) that the substance of the Cameron years will live with us for some time.

I mean, Big Society Capital is £600m living reminder of the efforts made to turn this political dream into a reality (whether or not you agree that social investment was the right vehicle).

National Citizen Service is also about to be plastered onto the statute book. The list of smaller policy successes for voluntary organisations and social enterprises (my highlight, of course, is the Social Value Act but then I am biased) is also not without note. I shall skip over the whole ‘Give it back, George’ debacle…

Barriers to engaging with politicians

There is a sense of caution across the political spectrum when one talks about the voluntary sector. Some of that is now related to negative media stories about charities.

But the real barrier is that many politicians feel that our sector was ‘given a go’ and failed to rise to the occasion. Why waste the time talking with yesterday’s people? I think that this is grossly unfair, but politicians want to differentiate themselves from their predecessors.  

I prefer to focus on the positives. The factors that made the sector attractive to a young Cameron seeking to make political waves in 2005 are still relevant now. Whether it is bringing communities together, reducing the deficit, making devolution work or increasing social mobility – our sector is critical to success.

Politicians and civil servants will (re)learn very quickly that if they want to make substantive change, they need to strengthen our sector and trust communities. We need to have confidence in ourselves and in our work. If we don’t, then we are never going to attract any future PM to invest their political capital in us.


May has all the potential of being a friend of the sector, although perhaps not as vocal a friend as Cameron at the start of his premiership. Every new PM is a new opportunity to reset the relationship, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for our sector.

She is unlikely to come up with anything as bold as the ‘Big Society’ – but frankly, at the moment, we don’t really need it. There are more pressing issues, like sorting out commissioning for small and medium sized organisations or building financial capability.

We also need to learn the lessons from the past. Manage expectations and no matter how positive a government is, recognise that we are going to have to fight tooth and nail for every change we want to see.

Good PMs and ministers love a challenge. There are plenty facing this country. So let’s rediscover our confidence and lay down the gauntlet to Mrs May.

Andrew O’Brien worked as a senior Parliamentary researcher for a Conservative MP between 2010 and 2013. He writes in a personal capacity.

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