Helen Barnard is Director of Research and Policy at Pro Bono Economics.
Ballot papers are beginning to land on Conservative Party members’ doormats. The leadership contest is viewed by some as a fight for the heart of the party – a chance to truly define modern conservatism.
Underlying this is the question of whether the electoral coalition which delivered a stonking majority in 2019 can be held together without the twin factors of Brexit and Boris.
Character and communication are as important as policy in determining which way members move, and it’s fair to assume that policy positions laid out in the heat of a contest don’t necessarily predict everything the next government will do.
But the issues each candidate chooses to focus on, as well as their policy prescriptions, do give significant indications of the direction they want to take the country in.
The issues that have received by far the most airtime are the timing of tax cuts and the role of public borrowing in funding responses to the cost of living crisis and measures to improve growth. Other issues, such as housing, immigration and the NHS, have received more attention as the contest has progressed, though still lag far behind.
But, so far, both the leadership contenders and those questioning them seem to have overlooked an enormous swathe of conservative tradition, which has always viewed solutions to national challenges as not just lying with the state or businesses, but bubbling up from communities and families.
Within this tradition, civil society and charities are seen as playing a crucial role in building social capital and resilience, innovating and enabling communities to create their own responses to the issues they face.
Early on, the Johnson Government was criticised for focusing its levelling up agenda too narrowly on hard infrastructure (such as new train lines and bridges) and overlooking the importance of social infrastructure (services like childcare and training, and the community groups, spaces and relationships which support community life).
The Levelling Up White Paper marked a decisive turning point, setting out goals which looked beyond pay and productivity and encompassed ,wellbeing and community pride. Its analysis of the causes of places being ‘left behind’ highlighted the role of social, human and institutional capital, as well as physical and financial capital.
The white paper was light on concrete policies, but gave many hope that it had laid the groundwork for an approach that could finally make progress on the UK’s enormous geographical inequalities.
In the first televised debate, both candidates committed to continuing the levelling up agenda. But the narrow focus of the leadership debate so far signals a potential risk that the leadership takes a step backwards in its conception of how to achieve it.
Retreating to a narrower focus on taxes and public spending would be a mistake. There is a huge opportunity to be seized in harnessing the power and ingenuity that lies within communities, and the charities and groups which build trust and connections between people. The vaccine rollout stands as a striking example of what can be achieved when the public sector, charities and business combine their resources.
Across all three televised debates neither candidate has mentioned the role of charities or civil society, despite both being patrons of charities themselves (Rishi Sunak of the National Osteoporosis Support Group, Leyburn Brass Band and Wensleydale Wheels community transport project, and Liz Truss of the Ulysses Trust, a volunteer and Cadet Force charity).
There was a fleeting mention in the second debate, when an audience member spoke of relying on a charity for support through his cancer treatment. Even then however, the discussion immediately focused on the performance of the NHS. There was no acknowledgement of the vital role played by the social sector, both in directly delivering healthcare and preventing future demand through its wider role in communities.
The competition to be seen as the true heir of Margaret Thatcher understandably prompts fierce debate about taxes, sound money and the role of the state. But Britain’s first female premier had strong views about the vital role of voluntary associations and philanthropy, as well as the importance of the state supporting and enabling communities to act for themselves through civil society.
This tradition is alive and well in the party. Polling shows the vast majority of Conservative MPs and councillors are in contact with charities and community groups and recognise their important role in local and national life. Similarly, 84 per cent of Conservative voters believe charities and community groups play an important role in our society.
When the new prime minister takes office in September, they will speedily have to get to grips with the cost-of-living crisis, which looks even more forbidding after the Bank of England’s latest forecast of inflation reaching 13 per cent and a year-long recession. They are fortunate to be able to call on the ideas and ingenuity of innumerable charities and community groups, backed by philanthropists, business and public donations, as well as government funding.
Alongside the big calls they will need to make on taxes and the autumn Budget, the next prime minister would also do well to strengthen their government’s links with these vital civil society actors and increase the ability to leverage in philanthropic investment where it is most needed.
Without this, there is a real risk that their response to our big national challenges will be hamstrung and unstable – relying exclusively on the state and business, not reinforced by the third pillar of civil society.