What role do the political parties think the voluntary sector should play in delivering welfare services? How have parties’ ideas changed over the post-war period? And, what impact has devolution had… ?

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

These are some of the questions that I set out to address in a study that is to be published this month. Despite an extensive academic literature extending back decades – perhaps surprisingly, there has been little work on elections and how the political parties envision the role of the third – or voluntary – sector in delivering services. This has gained in importance over recent decades and has underpinned an international trend towards giving voluntary organisations a role alongside the state in delivering services – such as health, transport, education, housing, social care. This is captured by the term ‘welfare pluralism’ – simply to denote that it’s not just public bodies – but also the voluntary and private sectors that increasingly deliver such services.

It would be wrong to think this is a new idea. For example the Conservative’s 1945 manifesto said: ‘the voluntary hospitals which have led the way in the development of hospital technique will remain free. They will play their part in the new service in friendly partnership with local authority [i.e. state] hospitals’ (Conservative Party 1945, p. 9). In like fashion, the Liberal manifesto of 1950 said: ‘Much can be done, through the encouragement of voluntary mutual aid, to improve social welfare’ (Liberal Party, 1950, p.7) – and the Labour manifesto of 1970 (p.11) said: ‘Financial aid has also been given to voluntary agencies such as housing associations, which have a valuable role to play, particularly in renewing old houses’. The financial crash of 2007/8 and subsequent austerity has given renewed topicality to voluntary bodies delivering services in the face of today’s cuts in public expenditure. Thus it’s been an established aspect of New Labour governments’ policy agenda as well as that of the current ConDem coalition government – with its ‘Big Society’ discourse. The Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish governments have all, to varying extents, also embraced the idea. In the case of Wales, government partnership with the voluntary sector featured strongly in the ‘inclusive governance’ rhetoric of the pro-devolution campaigns of the 1990s (see Chaney and Fevre, 2001).

It’s fair to ask ‘why look at party election manifestos in order to understand the way welfare is delivered’? In response, I think there are some good reasons. First they provide details of future government and crucially (– and often overlooked) – opposition parties’ policies. 2. in the face of other competing policy issues they show how parties compare in the priority they attach to the voluntary sector. 3. They reveal areas of party conflict and consensus; 4. They provide insight into how policy is shaped by ideology; and 5. How policy is shaped by party politics in each electoral system or polity.

What did the study involve? Amongst other things, it entailed a systematic analysis of the main parties’ election manifestos stretching back to 1945 in the case of Westminster – and, back to 1998/9 in the case of ‘devolved’ elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Rather than rely solely on quantitative techniques (in particular content analysis) – as is often the case in election studies, this research combined quantitative analysis with qualitative examination of the language used in party manifestos (or ‘policy framing’).

So what did it find? In the case of the Westminster election manifestos the Conservatives’ long-held, ideological position of reducing state involvement in welfare provision is reflected in the fact that almost two-thirds of the party’s references to third sector welfare delivery were made during or before the 1992 election. In contrast, New Labour’s more recent embrace of a mixed economy of welfare is reflected in the fact that over three-quarters of the party’s references to third sector delivery were made during, or after, the 1997 election. Analysis also reveals that during the Blair administrations there was significant convergence between Labour and Conservatives’ use of language, notably around the notion of ‘stake-holding’.

Following devolution the voluntary sector has gained increasing attention in the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish elections. Key study findings relate to the way differing levels of attention apply to voluntary sector provision of services in each of the devolved nations. For example, in Scotland attention to voluntary provision of aspects of education, is followed by those relating to health. Whereas in Wales greater attention is given to voluntary organisations promoting equalities.  In the case of Northern Ireland policy divergence is, in part, explained by the civil conflict. Thus, there is greater attention to voluntary organisations delivering services to improve social cohesion/ community relations (e.g. ‘we must work to … promote Good Relations guidelines amongst community based organisations and encouraging voluntary participation in Good Relations practices’ (SDLP, 2007, p. 47).

Why does all this matter? The study findings are significant to contemporary understanding of so-called ‘mixed-economy’ approaches to welfare – not least because of the way the language of manifestos acts as a driver of policy divergence in federal – or devolved states like the UK. The result is differing policy visions for the third sector depending on which nation you live in- Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or England. These divergent views on the nature of the third sector’s welfare role matter because they often translate into government programmes. This is in part due to the proportional electoral systems in the evolved nations and the greater likelihood of coalition government. Thus, more than ten different parties, have, in varying combinations, held government office since 1998. And combining parties’ respective manifestos in order to form a coalition government policy agenda is a routine aspect of devolved politics.

The study is therefore part of new empirical evidence of how the electoral politics of devolution is (re-)defining the way welfare develops across the UK. This challenges the widely held notion of one welfare state in the UK. For example, this was a foundational principle in the 1944 White Paper that paved the way for the NHS. It said, ‘the proposed service must be “comprehensive” in two senses- first, that it is available to all people and, second, that it covers all necessary forms of healthcare’ (MoH/ DHS, 1944, p.3). Here explicit reference is made to securing a state-wide system: ‘the differing circumstances of Scotland are bound to involve certain differences of method and of organisation, although not of scope or of object’ (MoH/ DHS, 1944, p.2, emphasis added). In other words, uniform welfare provision across the UK. As this study attests, this is no longer the case.

All of this poses key questions about policy co-ordination and different welfare rights and entitlements across the UK. These are fundamental and interesting issues. They will be further explored in the forthcoming WISERD CS project ‘Territoriality and Third Sector Engagement in Policy-Making and Welfare Provision’.

The study findings will published in June 2014. See: Chaney, P. (2014) Multi-level Systems and the Electoral Politics of Welfare Pluralism: Exploring Third-Sector Policy in UK Westminster and Regional Elections 1945–2011, VOLUNTAS: The International Journal of Voluntary and Non-profit Organizations, Volume 25, Issue 3, Page 585-611,* DOI 10.1007/s11266-013-9354-9http://www.springerlink.com/openurl.asp?genre=article&id=doi:10.1007/s11266-013-9354-9  * Impact Factor 0.881, Social Issues, 20/39; SCImago Journal and Country Rank 0.532, Geography, Planning and Development 84/468.