Ready for change? Highlights from the Conservative Party conference

After Labour’s conference (see here for my thoughts), last week was the Conservatives’ turn. As the party steams ahead in the polls, all eyes were on them in the hope that the conference would provide us with a better idea of some of the things they would do if their poll ratings translate into success at the ballot box. One of the main criticisms levelled at them has been their lack of concrete policies. Though realistically this is probably to be expected of a party not in government that have no real need to commit to anything right now and are also not privy to the true picture of government finances. There is unlikely to be any more precise policy detail in the run up to the General Election in May (except a party manifesto commitments) which introduces a significant element of uncertainty for many organisations when planning for beyond next year. However, reading between the lines of the political rhetoric and analysing the party’s general direction and narrative can help uncover some of the potential changes this might entail for the VCS and your organisation and allow you to start planning for some likely changes.

‘Modern Conservatism’ was last week's latest prefix, now used interchangeably with ‘Progressive Conservatism’ to summarise the changes the party has undergone. Some might say these terms are so contradictory they seem like an oxymoron but they are key to the re-branding of the party in the same way as ‘New’ was to Labour. In doing this, the Conservatives have been stamping on well, Labour’s stamping ground, declaring themselves the "true champions for progressive ideals". But the key difference is that this is about delivering “progressive goals through Conservative means”. And the VCS has an important role in this, particularly for the Conservative's stated priorities such as social justice, welfare reform and strengthening families.

So what did we find out from the conference? David Cameron rejected calls to 'play it safe' with sombre speech that set out a difficult journey ahead. And George Osbourne equally took a gamble with his speech, finally divulging how they plan to cut spending in an attempt to cut the debt deficit, albeit not in a huge amount of detail and subsequently labelled as merely a ‘dent’ by the IFS. However, with all the parties now talking of cuts to public spending, the fight for who can cut the most, with the least damage to services has begun. There were no surprise announcements but rather a continuation and reiteration of their main themes. Below is a short summary of the main themes and what they might mean for the VCS:

Public spending cuts

Proposals included a rise to the state pension age sooner than Labour, a freeze on public sector wages and cuts to some middle class welfare payments. Cuts to public spending and a rise in the pension age will have significant implications for the VCS, particularly those with an ageing workforce. On the positive side, organisations will be able to benefit from employees working longer but the associated pension costs will have significant costs. This may also have an impact on the current plethora of older volunteers that many organisations rely on. Cuts to public sector wages may also ease pressure on VCS salary costs but a gap between low public sector wages and private sector companies who have the freedom to pay what they want may emerge.

Back to work

This involves a shake-up in the welfare system designed to get 500,000 people off incapacity benefit and scrapping Labour's New Deal back-to-work programme in favour of more personalised support for the unemployed. The young unemployed will also be referred on to the Work Programme after 6 months of unemployment compared to a year under the Flexible New Deal. There was also support for apprenticeships and work placements and a focus on paying for results, with bigger rewards for those hardest to get into work. The VCS already plays a key role in helping the unemployed develop skills and get back into work and more personalised support could help address the multiplicity of reasons why people are not in work. However, policies that focus solely on getting people into work, particularly in a period where unemployment is high may be unsustainable and risk not fully taking into account why people are not in work. Contracts based on results (already put in place by Labour) may also increase competition and pressure to achieve value for money and efficiency.

Rewards for responsibility

Cameron pledged to reward those who take responsibility and care for those who could not, adding he wanted a country where "the poorest children go to the best schools not the worst, where birth is never a barrier". Both Labour and the Conservatives have long been pursuing an agenda which focuses on individuals taking greater responsibility in return for greater rights (see this driver on policies on rights and responsibilities). This links into Conservative plans to tackle welfare dependency and anti-social behaviour, as well as being part of a longstanding scepticism of the state to solve societal problems. More rights and responsibility can empower individuals, by allowing them to take more control of their own lives and services. However, a stricter, more conditional approach to state entitlements may lead to an increase in inequality as those unable to make their voice heard or take responsibility for themselves are marginalised. The VCS may have a key role in helping individuals to build their confidence and skills so they can make the right choices, either directly or indirectly.

Less state, more society

Cameron has been pushing a traditional Conservative agenda which entails rolling back "big government" in favour of a "stronger society". This will involve getting rid of quangos and cutting down on civil servants, as well as abolishing regional structures and assemblies and a greater focus on localism. There is a risk this will damage areas where the regional delivery and coordination of services is more effective than at a local level. Regional and sub-regional VCS groups may also find themselves marginalised in influence and lacking in funding sources. There is also likely to be a greater focus on efficiency and value for money in an attempt to cut bureaucracy and deliver services in the most cost-efficient way for the tax payer which may lead to a more competitive funding environment for VCOs. The Conservatives have previously been open about the value they believe the VCS has in helping to create a stronger, more independent society that relies less on the state (see this news post on their Green Paper on the VCS).

Social justice

There was continued support for the idea of social justice in an attempt to address ‘Broken Britain” and a “Broken Society” and a strong attack on the high levels of poverty in the UK. In an attempt to help the poor weather the recession, they are not planning to reverse the 50 pence top rate of income tax; a decision that it seems was not necessarily endorsed by all in the party. Support for social breakdown, social justice and poverty are obviously key issues for the VCS (see the driver on Conservative focus on social justice) but it remains to be seen whether these will remain at the forefront as recovery from the recession and addressing key public concerns become the battleground for the General Election. The vigour with which these were pursued has already faded slightly since the release of their reports on social breakdown in 2006 and 2007. However, the Conservatives’ interest in social justice may force Labour and other political parties to increase their focus on these issues if they do not want the Conservatives to dominate thinking in this area which would be positive for VCOs working in these areas.

A fragile balancing act

Despite their success in the polls and a positive party conference, many argue that Cameron’s Modern Conservatives is a shallower movement than New Labour. It remains to be seen if Cameron can really take the party in the direction he wants, he is still maintaining a fairly fragile hold over the different factions. Added to this there are still several issues lurking in the background that threaten to derail his party in the future such as the pledge to keep the 50p tax rate and the issue of a referendum on the EU Treaty. However, with such a lead in the polls, this would probably just be a slight knock but it may stop the momentum and perhaps allow Labour to make up some ground.

More information

The Guardian have produced a series of articles that analyse what the Conservatives would do in certain areas if they got into power, though being a left of centre paper, these obviously have a more critical slant. The main articles that are relevant for the VCS are:

Last updated at 12:01 Thu 10/Feb/11.
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