Voluntary sector 'ultras' gear up for post election campaigning

I’m interested to see that the National Coalition for Independent Action is taking on its first member of staff (details below). Just another voluntary sector post? Not really, because Coalition members have been campaigning for some years against the Government contract and funding culture which, they believe, has drawn many nonprofit organisations into a close and unhealthy relationship with the State, where their independence is compromised by tight targets and monitoring.

All rather relevant in the context of Conservative proposals for The Big Society, with its “radical revolt against the statist approach of the Big Government that always knows best”. Hmmm, any similarity of concern? Here’s NCIA, who acknowledge they are sometimes known as the “hypercritical ultras of the voluntary sector“:

The Coalition is an alliance of organisations and individuals who have come together out of frustration and anger to object to the state of UK Voluntary and Community Sectors. We believe there is a crisis in our ability to act independently from Government and other powerful interests, and to be part of the checks we need within our democracy. This threat to independent action will, unless challenged, undermine our civil society, our political health, and the capacity of communities to get what they need for themselves.

The March newsletter warns:

One of the Coalition’s priorities for the coming year is to find ways defending and promoting the role and importance of community groups and community action. As we enter the period in which savage cuts are to be made to public spending and services, this part of voluntary action, already marginalised, will find itself under increasing pressure and even less likely to be able to attract support.

These issues are certainly going to be very live after the election … particularly if the Conservatives are in power and able to carry through their vision for The Big Society, with a bigger role for voluntary organisations and community action. (Earlier posts here). Whether this means more paid-for contracts, or local action more in line with the Coalition’s approach may be unclear until it has gone through the Civil Service policy mill. However, here’s a further taste of David Cameron:

We will provide help to unleash the power of the people; the state will assume a new role as an agitator for social renewal, with extra help in disadvantaged areas. An army of community organisers will recruit and encourage people on the ground to get stuck in to improving neighbourhoods.

This army, based on the principles of the radical US organiser Saul Alinsky, provoked a fine rant from Daily Telegraph commentator Gerald Warner: David Cameron’s Big Society is a grotesque fantasy inspired by leftist subversive Saul Alinsky:

There is a pedantic debate over whether Alinsky was technically a Marxist, or by-passed Marx as old-hat. What is beyond question is his project to overthrow capitalist society and to do so through infiltration of political parties, institutions and, above all, by the
use of “community organisers”. Anybody who thought claims on this blog of Cultural Marxism influencing even the Tory Party were exaggerated can now think again. Alinsky was the first begetter of ACORN, the sinister organisation that tried to gerrymander the American electorate.What is going on here? Who is running the Cameronian Party – Common Purpose? How is it conceivable that even the most bland, politically correct, centre-right “conservative” party could derive its flagship policy from the thinking of Alinsky, whose seminal work Rules for Radicals was dedicated to Lucifer? If, as one suspects, this is the brainchild of Oliver Letwin, he needs to be escorted expeditiously to the seclusion of a padded boudoir.

While on rants … the Coalition stance is at odds with those in the nonprofit world who see contracting as a good for the sector, and their customers. On this I recommmend reading Stephen Bubb, CEO of ACEVO, the association for chief executives of voluntary organisations. He writes an engaging blog, and on this subject is forthright, commenting on an article by the Coalition’s Andy Benson in the Times:

Thoroughly furious at the specious and unwarranted attacks in this, but I calm down…how do I know that Mr Benson has not been away in a Monastery for the last year and unable to read papers or listen to newscasts , thus out of touch with what goes on in our great sector? …..

….The article attacks contracting for service delivery , indeed apparently they are ” sapping the life out of the voluntary sector “. Preposterous. What contracts are doing is enabling thousands of charities to deliver much needed services to our citizens and


And I shall continue to work with Government to promote better services , give praise where it is due and slap wrists when they need correction. We believe in kicking arse where that is needed but only to effect change. Generalised whinging , unsupported by evidence but motivated by bile has no place in the third sector. So Mr Benson, confine your preaching. It is not wanted here.

Stephen’s blog has achieved the ultimate accolade, a spoof called Bogg’s Blubb with an accompanying Twitter account for Robin Bogg.

I think there’s a case for contracting, campaigning, volunteering, social enterprise and more in the rich mix of civil society. What exchanges like those above remind us is that – as the NCIA say in their tag line – “It’s about power, stupid”. Kevin Harris wrote about the Big Society plans:

Here’s a suggestion: start from the recognition that community action is fundamentally, insecapably political, and get used to it. Attempts to depoliticise it will be self-defeating and may lead to a revival of confrontational radicalism. I welcome the Big Society thinking from the tories because it might just force us to think about the politics of communty action after a couple of decades when that really hasn’t been paid much attention.

The NCIA staff job should mean we’ll get more reminders of this … if not always within established democratic processes. The latest post on their site by Sean Creighton The elections – still worth paying attention? starts:

Some of us think that who ever you vote for the Government gets in. So we’ll use our time doing more useful things than vote. But we know others disagree. One NCIA supporter thinks it’s still worth asking your local politicians what they actually mean by building civil society and giving power back to the people.  So for those of you still with stamina for our established way of doing things, here are some questions you might ask.

Anyway, here’s NCIA the advert. I would love to see a draft recruitment ad for Cameron’s army. Would the first line be very different? The politics of community action can be very confusing.

National Coalition for Independent Action
National Co-ordinator (up to 4 days a week) – £30k pro rata

We’re footloose, outspoken and spirited. We don’t do targets and we reject ‘command-and-control’ working. We’re often angry and we’re dogged in our determination to change the status quo. And we have fun. Want to join us?

The National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA) is an alliance built around the belief that a defining feature of our democratic society is in danger – our unfettered freedom to join with others in independent voluntary and community activities. Our primary purpose is to expose these dangers and to encourage those involved in voluntary action to create and pursue their own agendas for social justice and a healthy society. You can see who we are and what we stand for by checking our website www.independentaction.net

More and more people agree with us. We’re growing and have decided to create our first staff post of National Co-ordinator. This is offered as a one-year fixed term contract, with the option of renewal for a further year. The post available is for 4 days a week but we will consider applications for less than 4 days a week. The postholder may either work from home/their own office, or be based with a supporter organisation.

You’ll work in an equal relationship with a growing network of individuals and groups that cover ever bit of voluntary endeavour across the UK. You’ll need to have clear views of what is needed and to be influenced by others with equally strong views. Most important – you need to believe in what we are trying to do. If you can’t do hectic, or cope with difference and dissent, then don’t apply. But if you thrive on too many balls in the air, the widest landscape and horizons imaginable and seek solidarity and co-working with kindred souls – then find out more.

For further details and a job description please contact: Frances Sullivan at franceshs@googlemail.com or phone 0208 692 4009.

Closing date for applications: 1st June 2010

Date for interviews:  10th June


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  • April 29, 2010 - 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for running the advert….Interesting assemblage of themes, which I’ll try to comment on without producing too long a treatise….
    1) First off, asking us what we think about the tories and their ‘big society’ kind of starts from the wrong place. For I don’t hardly listen to them (or the others)because I believe very little of what they say, or truly know about things. But I am completely and crystal clear that what any of them do, if and when they claim office,will bear all relationship to the often squalid contingencies of the situation, and the influence both of naked self interest and sources of power that do not rest with the people…. and little or no relationship to what is in their manifesto or what they spin on TV each dreary evening.

    2) Ideologically however, there is the clash between the libertarian left and the libertarian right. Both value liberty and individual freedom, and see, in the state, the threat to these. The tories hide behind the libertarian right but in truth they are just as interested as the labour party in being in charge of the rest of us. The astonishingly complete network of CCTVs now watching us all is not going to come down if the tories win the election. Their chums may get more freedom to exploit the rest of us, but we’re not going to get any new civil liberties and those whose human rights are trod upon by reason of poverty, birth, skin colour, or vulnerability will still feel the weight of the shoe.

    3) So are we the liberatarian left? Maybe. But more likely a bit of this and a bit of that. For example, one of our priorities this year is to try, in our own small way, to reintroduce the idea that the privatisation of public services is a bad thing that should be resisted. Our position thus far (though remember that we are an alliance and there are loads of different views in the alliance)basically says,

    – we can see no good reason why public authorities and bodies can’t deliver effective and efficient public services that meet people’s needs;
    – And that it’s a good idea to organise these things in that way because it makes it more likely that the services will be regarded as in common ownership and that someone identifiable (and removable)can be held accountable for what goes on.

    This position directly supports the existence and impact of the state on the public good. So on this point I suppose we Statist.

    But at the same time, we don’t trust the bastards. And there’s been plenty of evidence lately to justify that opinion. So one of the things that us citizens must do is organise for ourselves around not trusting them. This we see to be the core role of what is called the ‘voluntary and community sector’. This ungoverned space is vital for other reasons too, but the job of knowing about what the state is up to, holding it to account and actively dissenting where necessary is especially important. So here we’re with the anarchists……

    4)In referring to ACEVO, your blog also illustrates something else that is important to understand about what’s going on. The fact that the ‘voluntary sector’ isn’t a sector at all but a conglomeration of all manner of different things. And one part of this is the ACEVO brigade, so entertainingly represented by Stephen Bubb. For the Bubbists are part of a new wave of corporatist, competitive, ambitious and politically reactionary activity, functioning largely according to corporate private and business sector mores and norms. In terms of our interests in the Coalition they are already lost to us, and more’s the shame for that.

    Andy Benson
    Coalition for Independent Action

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