Monday, 12 May 2014

The Social Leaders' Gathering, Part 2 - Labour and the third sector

When ACEVO talks to Westminster, we like to speak truth to power and to do so across the political spectrum. Before the 2010 election this meant asking the necessary questions of the Conservatives' Big Society policy as it was unveiled - how would the party devolve power in practice and ensure that communities were in a position to take control of their own services?

Now, with a Labour opposition, we're asking similar questions of them too. My Director of Public Policy, Asheem Singh, noted in the Guardian in February that Ed Miliband's rhetoric of people power, localism and devolution has many parallels with David Cameron's before the election. In the details there are some novelties, not least the renewed focus on public interest as the test for who gets contracts. But my argument remains that Labour must full take note of what the third sector has to offer, if they're to succeed in their plans to devolve power.

Jon Cruddas told our Gathering of Social Leaders last week – see the transcript in the New Statesman – that Labour still aim for “a new kind of self-help democracy. Enabling people to build the services they need in partnership with their providers. With huge opportunities to give power back to people.”

I introduced him with a brief speech which went even further. I argued that these good intentions won't achieve the transformation they intend unless the party acknowledges that proper devolution of power can only work if power is handed to organised communities of interest or of place. And who is it who is there to organise communities and help them achieve power and voice? Very often the best option is the third sector.

Edited highlights of my speech are below:

I’d like to introduce Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham and, for the last couple of years, coordinator of the Labour Party’s Policy Review.

In recent years Labour hasn’t always had the easiest relationship with the third sector. My own work with the current government and my determination to allow more third organisations to deliver public services has not surprisingly proved unpopular with many parts of the party.

But this can easily change.

The fact is that, as Andy Burnham for example now acknowledges, our sector’s work is indispensable to the success of a wide range of Labour’s plans for government.

If the Labour Party is to succeed in joining together health and social care, for example, it will be essential for Andy Burnham to work closely with the hundreds of voluntary and community organisations on which the future of our NHS depends, who are best placed to deliver responsive and patient-focused care on the front line.

In that vein, we’re now working closely on policy including the future of social prescribing by GPs, and the ways to increase third sector representation on health and wellbeing boards – both the kinds of policy change that simply streamline the pathways into the work our sector does anyway. They will not only improve patient care and empower service users to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, but also save a future Labour government money.

Lisa Nandy spoke of her vision for our sector a short while ago – and I recognise and praise her ambition to do all she can to push our sector up her party’s programme for government.

So, my message is: now is the chance for the Labour Party to make its Big Offer to the third sector.

How could that be achieved?

Political parties talk a lot about power.

But are there really a lot of people in our country with the desire and capability to take on more power?

The third sector grew up in the realisation that people power requires careful organisation. Many people are more concerned in their every day life with making ends meet and just with getting on. 

But that is perhaps at odds with the endless rhetoric of recent years about pushing power down and away from Whitehall and Westminster.

This rhetoric doesn't set out in detail the way in which power is actually constructed; the fact that civil society groups arise because power needs to be devolved to institutions and not just to individuals.

My challenge to Labour and to Jon this afternoon follows directly on from Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian in early February, which I pleased to go along to.

Ed spoke of the importance of ‘people-powered public services’, and the need to strike a different path, away from ‘old-style top-down central control’ and ‘a market-based individualism’. His target was identified as the ‘unresponsive state’. A devolved state will even allow Labour to do ‘more with less’ – Ed said.

He promised that ‘the next Labour manifesto will commit to a radical reshaping of services so that local services can come together and make the decisions that matter to their own communities’.

But how do we actually make this happen? I am convinced that this rhetoric – and it is in many respects very similar to David Cameron’s rhetoric before 2010 – is only achievable if Labour harnesses the established power of community groups and charities to take on public services and look after the people they represent.

Power can only be devolved if it is passed down to organised structures and institutions.

So what needs to be done? The third sector can provide a number of crucially important functions:
- We allow communities of place or of interest to take up their own issues
- We offer information, advice, reassurance and representation to many of the most vulnerable people in our society.
- We take up other people’s causes – and speak truth to power on behalf of those who have little other voice – take for example the work of the Trussell Trust speaking, out in the past year on behalf of the 913,138 users of food banks for 2013-14.
- We improve the strength and breadth of ‘communities’. For all the romantic rhetoric in the present day of communities of place and of interest, some people, particularly the disabled for example, are vulnerable to falling through the net of the largest networks of mutual support. Our sector is particularly strong when it comes to caring for they are far from the welcoming place that folklore would have you believe.
- And lastly, we mobilise at a national scale. In many areas you need the strength of national third sector organisations if communities are to be mobilised and represented on a scale large enough to have the desired effect.

So, thank you Jon for coming here to ACEVO today. I hope my challenge gives you a good opportunity to put more substance to Ed Miliband’s rhetoric on the third sector.

I look forward to hearing you speak on the importance of charities and the social economy for giving greater power, belonging and ownership to communities in Labour’s One Nation narrative.

If you’re looking for real models of ‘people power’ in action, then remember to look at our sector. We are ready and willing to help.

I look forward to a positive year of collaboration.

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