As I have previously flagged, we face an interesting year ahead in terms of politics and public policy.
It is widely reported that Labour, led by Keir Starmer, are the next government in waiting and that after what will be 14 years or so of Conservative administration, this will be a major change. It is also widely commented, often satirically, that this may make no difference and that Labour policies are either the same as Conservative ones, or that they change with the wind. For the voluntary sector, it has however been much more the case that we simply don’t know what Labour really thinks of us? And on top of many years of Central Government apathy towards the voluntary sector, we have almost forgotten what it is like to be part of national policy shaping.
It was therefore with great interest that I read the details of a little trailed and somewhat secret speech given by Keir Starmer to Pro Bono Economics in late January, addressing a VCSE audience, and specifically about the VCSE sector and its role with and alongside government. It was part of a larger event at which most of the Labour Shadow Cabinet were present and held roundtables on a range of subjects under their respective portfolios. It started with a seemingly frank, and perhaps necessary, acknowledgement from Labour, of government’s ignorance of the sector in recent years. It also noted the Big Society ambitions of the now Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, when he was Prime Minister. The latter being a prime example of good intentions, but limited action when crowded out by other more urgent priorities. Interesting that he referenced this in a speech, which turns out to be full of the same good intentions, but also lacked detailed policy positions… perhaps an early challenge to us, to hold them to account for delivery? It was also noted that this speech should have come sooner.
The speech will probably be boiled down to the buzz words ‘a society of service’ – Keir Starmer’s vision for a renewed relationship with the VCSE sector in the widest sense. But there was direct reference to our sector’s role in the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis; and not just the roles played by big national charities – he took time to reference several local charities and activities. He was it seems well briefed. He also pointed to the so-called culture wars and examples where charities have become the target or collateral damage of such ‘campaigns’, such as the RNLI and the National Trust. One hopes as a promise not to do the same, however tempting it might be. In doing so, he promised a reset of the relationship between civil society and government and gave respect to our campaigning or ‘speaking up’ role. All the right things one would have wanted to hear.
He went further, promoting the sector as crucial to the economy, not just ‘warm and fluffy’; and said that we have ‘always held up our end of the social contract’ with implied reference to the cost-of-living crisis as not being our mess to clean up, yet we did anyway. He finished by setting out his vision for a ‘decade of national renewal’. Some were quick to interpret this as ‘don’t expect any quick cash’, rather than the notion of long-term, lasting change that was intended. Renewal was intended to reference addressing root causes, not ‘tinkering’; something many in the VCSE sector will hold great affinity with after many years of tokenistic handouts, that hit the target and miss the point.
He signed off his speech with a return to the society of service notion and talked about the Labour missions and our involvement as key partners in all of them. He gave no investment promises, not any very detailed policy proposals. He also failed to give any real parameters for how this new relationship might work – and sector leaders are quick to point out that it cannot be from the metaphorical broom cupboard in the department for Culture, Media, and Sport where sector relations currently reside. The Shadow Minister, Lilian Greenwood MP, needs to be placed front and centre in the Cabinet Office, Treasury or perhaps Department for Levelling Up, if any of this is to translate into reality. It did lack detail and I would and will flag that it continues to be all too easy for those who hold all the purse strings to say there is no money, whilst those with pennies struggle on, resource-deficient not just diminished.
But it’s easy to be cynical. I actually found the speech to be rather uplifting and hopeful. A senior politician, who seems to get it. One who is interested in our role and sees that we need government support and collaboration to flourish. One with well informed, well briefed, and therefore implied, well-connected advisers. I really do want to believe that placing trust, fairness, and equity at the heart of governance is possible and that good things will come of it.
Time will tell. The full speech can be read here: https://labour.org.uk/updates/stories/keir-starmers-speech-to-civil-society-summit/
Garry Jones (he/him)