Spoke today at the conference of London Voluntary Sector Resource Centre, the VCS umbrella for the capital. Sharing a platform was Andy Benson of the new National Coalition of Independent Organisations.
Andy is an incredibly eloquent exponent of a view of the sector which, in many ways is right. But rather in the way that Marx was right. The analysis is strong and based on good principle. The problem is that, like Marx, he offered few answers beyond getting angry, solidarity, all that SWP/Respect stuff.
What I liked about Andy was that he is coming from some of the same places as me. He's angry about a lot of stuff. He believes in freedom of expression and the primacy of civil society. He is a sceptic about the state and brilliantly funny about the rot mouthed by Government about empowerment, capacity-building and so on. He is also very perceptive about the way commissioning can turn the sector into a dumb servant of state ends, no longer an independent, free voice.
But that's as far as it went. He's also, quite oddly, a bit of a statist. Asked about the need to break down public sector monopolies, he talked about the loss of central control this would entail. What I couldn't quite square is how this champion of community wanted to protect failing state monopolies whose existence impoverishes the communities which he champions.
While there were supportive pockets, the audience overall was probably the most left-wing I have encountered. It was a bit like speaking at a fringe meeting at Labour Party conference, circa 1982. I was heckled when I dared to slag off our beloved NHS (yes, the one that is particularly adept at killing learning-disabled people, normally through neglect)or when I spoke about the potential for community organisations to deliver public services.
This bunch of conservatives (for that is what they actually are, for all their self-styled leftyism) actually prefer things the way the are now. They would rather we all choke up even more in tax to pay for the falling productivity and Stalinesque management of these failing bureaucracies than turn them over to a diversity of providers and empowered citizens using personal budgets.
If the choice is a bigger state these guys would go for that every time over a smaller one and more empowered communities. Or at least that's where leftiness inevitably takes you. Personally, that's not what I want. I think we all deserve better than that. The people I work with certainly do and, until someone proves to me otherwise, I will do everything in my power to place choice and control back into their hands and away from the state.