Research, Data & Methods (WISERD) – Party Promises and Voluntarism

How does attention to the Third Sector in Parties’ 2015 Westminster Election Manifestos compare to previous post-war ballots?

Compared to issues like the economy, employment, education and health, the voluntary (or “third”) sector is not a topic that is likely to swing the results of a general election. That said, party pledges on the third sector do matter. They have far reaching consequences in relation to prevailing notions of citizenship, social values, community cohesion (‘social capital’) – as well as the delivery of welfare and other public services. So, with the 2015 general election just gone, in the latest of the WISERD lunchtime seminar series Dr Paul Chaney reported on his WISERD Civil Society research into electoral politics and the third sector. Specifically, the attention that political parties have given to the voluntary – or ‘third’ – sector in the seven decades since the Second World War. This work forms part of a series of studies that he has undertaken into electoral politics, public policy and political representation. Here we consider some of the findings.

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*graph shows % of all references over period, by election and party.

The first thing to note is, as the above graph shows, the number of references to the third sector in the three main Westminster parties’ manifestos has increased markedly over the past half century. A significant factor that explains parties’ growing interest in making pledges on volunteering and the voluntary sector is the notion of “welfare pluralism”. In other words, the situation whereby services often associated with the public sector (such as health, housing, education, community development and so on) are also delivered by the private and voluntary sector. For the present purposes, the private sector can be discounted. Rather we are interested in the scenario whereby voluntary – or third sector – organisations deliver services. In this regard, over the post-war period there has been longstanding interest from two of the main parties. The Liberals (and more recently, Liberal Democrats) have consistently argued that volunteering should complement the welfare state. Thus, as far back as 1950, their manifesto asserted “Much can be done, through the encouragement of voluntary mutual aid, to improve social welfare and the better use of leisure time”. In a further example three decades later they pledged: ‘Care in the community – We would give a greater role for voluntary organisations in partnership with official services’.

Analysis of Conservative Party manifestos at once confirms the Tories’ suspicion of over-reliance on state delivery of services and a willingness to encourage voluntary provision. In health for example, their 1955 manifesto asserted: ‘We believe that private practice and contributory schemes have a part to play with the National Health Service and we shall therefore maintain the system of hospital amenity and hospital pay beds. We have cut away restrictions on voluntary effort in the hospital service. We shall continue to give every encouragement to voluntary work’. It is a reoccurring theme throughout the decades. For example, in their 1964 manifesto they state: ‘Much juvenile delinquency originates in broken or unhappy homes. Local authorities will be encouraged, in co-operation with voluntary bodies, to develop their services of child care for young people deprived of normal home life and affection’.


In contrast, in their manifestos of the immediate post-war decades, the Labour Party gives scant attention to voluntary service provision. It is not until the reforms presaging the rise of ‘New’ Labour in the 1980s that the principal exponents of the welfare state undergo a ‘late conversion’ to welfare pluralism. Thus, the Party’s 1987 manifesto tells voters: ‘We appreciate and will support voluntary efforts that supplement services which are essential to the community. We share the view of many who are engaged in such efforts that they achieve best results working in the context of high quality public provision… Labour’s approach will be to develop the partnership between central and local government, with the direct participation of the voluntary and private sectors’. From the 1997 election onwards (as the graph above indicates), of the three main parties it is (New) Labour that devotes most attention to the third sector in its manifestos. This continues through until 2005.

Attention to the Third Sector in the 2015 General Election Manifestos

Whilst, the Tories under Michael Howard – and later Ian Duncan Smith, show comparatively less interest in the sector; this changes with Cameron’s leadership and the Tories’ promotion of the “Big Society”. Accordingly, of the three main parties, in both the 2010 and 2015 general elections it is the Conservatives that give greatest attention to the third sector in their manifestos (in 2015 this amounted to approximately a half of all references – compared to Labour 20 per cent and Liberal Democrats 30 per cent).

As the examples in the graphic below attest, a notable feature of the 2015 manifestos is the broad cross-party consensus on third sector input into service delivery.

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It is also the case that a number of key tropes (or themes) span the party manifestos. Examples include:

  • Empowerment (e.g. “giving young people the power and opportunity to play a real part in their community” – Conservatives);
  • Citizenship (e.g. “improve the curriculum for citizenship education, so young people have the knowledge they need to play a full part in British society. We will encourage young people’s volunteering and social action” – Labour),
  • Service (e.g. giving people opportunity to “serve in their community” – Conservatives);
  • New approaches/ innovation (e.g. “pioneered ways to deliver high-quality public services, including through getting the voluntary sector more involved” – Conservatives);
  • Joined-up services/ co-working (e.g. “Encourage health services to link up with Local Authority social care teams and voluntary services to join up care” – LibDems; and “By establishing a Fair Work Convention we aim to draw on and promote best practice, while making it easier to work effectively with our partners across the business community, third sector and trade unions” – SNP).

Notwithstanding such commonality, there are also differences. Distinctive pledges on the third sector in the 2015 manifestos include UKIP’s pledge to sweep-away ConDem Coalition government policy on the sector by: “Abolishing unnecessary quangos such as the Cabinet Office’s ‘Big Society’ programme (£49 million), the National Citizen Service (£62 million), [and] DfID’s International Citizen Service Volunteers (£110 million)…”. Yet, by far the most far-reaching pledge belongs to the Tories: “We will: give those who work for a big company and the public sector a new workplace entitlement to Volunteering Leave for three days a year, on full pay” (Conservative Party, 2015, p.45). Full details of when and how this will be implemented are awaited. Yet its potential consequences are significant and far-reaching. It may result in a significant boost to voluntarism. It also has major (under-examined) financial repercussions and, in terms of service delivery, constitutes a significant potential cost transfer to large employers.

Overall, the analysis shows that the 2015 General Election continued the seven decade trend of increasing political attention to voluntarism and the third sector. It also confirmed broad cross-party consensus on welfare pluralism – or, the involvement of third sector organisations in the delivery of welfare services – thereby complementing state provision. Whilst, in the manifestos, this was often dressed-up in political discourse of community participation, inclusion and empowerment – it was underpinned by the stark realities of austerity. The analysis also shows that consensus is tempered by enduring party political cleavages on the exact role (and limits to) the sector’s contribution to service delivery. It should also be noted that the 2015 election is just one part of the political narrative shaping the voluntary sector in the second decade of twenty-first century; it will also be determined by next year’s general elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.


About the author: Dr Paul Chaney is a Co-Director of WISERD. He is also co-editor of the academic journal Contemporary Wales and a member of the editorial management board of the journal Policy and Politics. He is the Welsh co-representative on the UK Government’s Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) Taskforce and Steering Group concerned with establishing the Commission on Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), a new single equality body that will replace the existing statutory GB equality commissions.