Is Labour the party of the voluntary sector? Community engagement is at the heart of the ‘one nation’ narrative, and in Lisa Nandy, the shadow civil society minister, the party has an experienced champion. Meanwhile, the pledge to repeal the Lobbying Act makes a strong statement that a Labour government would respect the need for charities to speak up about the impact of policy changes on the vulnerable and excluded.
But a question that remains is how far the party is truly comfortable with the sector’s involvement in public service delivery, or whether they see this as an encroachment on the state. When Ed Miliband gave the Hugo Young lecture in February, he spoke of David Cameron’s ‘big society’ agenda as having failed to “unleash the forces of the voluntary sector”. But he also presented a single, very specific image of how the sector currently interacts with the state, who, he said, are being left to “pick up the pieces where the state has abdicated its responsibility”.
It’s important to be clear that the current government is actually offering rather more than that. In fact, the voluntary sector has been deliberately designed-in to some of its most radical reforms, like the Work Programme and Transforming Rehabilitation. While these are primarily about outsourcing to the private sector, it is still the case that the participation of charities and social enterprises has been expressly sought, and their existing expertise acknowledged. Right-leaning think tanks have even written reports on the importance of strengthening the sector in preparation for the changes; it certainly seems that there is a serious offer of partnership on the table.
Of course, these are highly controversial plans, and many organisations will not see involvement in them as being compatible with their purposes. But a counter-offer from Labour has yet to emerge. The new generation of Labour thinkers must be clear that the voluntary sector has moved on considerably from the days of privately-funded philanthropy, wholly separate from the state. Many organisations are now directly commissioned by government. This is usually as a result not of outsourcing, but the reverse: a service is started by a voluntary organisation where it perceives there is a need, and comes to be seen as so essential that a department or local authority chooses to fund it. Examples include Victim Support and Rape Crisis centres. My field of criminal justice can struggle to attract funding from private donors because of the client group, so local authorities, probation trusts and others now pay for a vast range of interventions aiming to reduce reoffending. These would never have existed without the vision of a voluntary organisation to drive them.
And these should not be viewed as isolated cases of charities having to compensate where the state has failed. The public sector, with its direct accountability for both effective and economic public spending, cannot pre-empt and then road-test every new idea that might conceivably add to the common good. What’s unique about voluntary organisations is that they combine a social justice ethos and knowledge of the local community with the diverse funding base and charitable governance that allows them to take risks that the state can’t. They are uniquely placed to scrutinise and innovate, in a way that should be viewed as an asset and not a threat to the public sector.
So, over to Labour to consider embracing collaboration between the voluntary and public sectors as vocally as the coalition, and look for ways to support it as part of its plans for reform. This would build on the legacy of the last Labour government, whose Compact agreement set out key principles to guide successful partnerships with the voluntary sector as long ago as 1998. Today’s party, with its focus on ‘people-powered public services’, has the potential go further by developing the sector’s role at a local level. Local authorities should have a clear mandate to work collaboratively with community organisations to develop services that respond to need, and treat them as a vital strategic link with the people they serve.
By all means, let’s firm up the boundary between what the state should pay others to do, and what it must continue to deliver directly. But we can only fulfil the promise of empowered communities by fully acknowledging those already playing their part, and making sure that they are at the very heart of what our public services can do.