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Ed Miliband caught me smoking!

Ed Miliband caught me smoking!
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Ed Miliband caught me smoking!

Finance | Emma-Jane Cross | 26 Feb 2008

Last week the Rt. Hon. Ed Miliband MP, minister for the Cabinet Office, and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, told 650 people I smoked! My humiliation knew no bounds. Of course, Ed also said that he respected and trusted our sector; that he wanted the government and the third sector to be partners in change, and even encouraged us to “bite the hand that feeds us”!  Frankly, all things considered, I don’t care about that, the man told 650 of my peers that I smoked.

Despite my ritual humiliation, the NCVO conference on civil society last week was fabulous. It was a conference that gave me great hope for the future and a sense that if we the third sector play our cards right, at last we will join the top table.

Ed Miliband’s keynote and Oliver Letwin’s closing speech left me in no doubt that the Labour and Conservative parties view our sector’s potential relationship with them quite differently. 

As a minister, Ed is a thoughtful, compelling and honest advocate for the third sector. The chap gets us. Mr Miliband spoke of the government and the third sector being partners and not rivals, that our relationship should be founded on mutual respect, and outlined some of the challenges we will face concerning social justice. It seems to me that Ed is justifiably challenged by many of the most pressing social issues of this country and, in both intellectual and policy terms, is genuinely seeking to redefine the relationship government has with our sector. Ed in my opinion is a big-time supporter of devolved, grassroots interventions – or, to put it crudely, a ‘power to the people’ sort of guy. He seeks to represent a government of facilitators and of funders, working to encourage social change; a government charged with creating the political and policy catalysts that will tackle so many of our quintessentially 21st century problems. ‘Social change by citizens for citizens’ sort of thing.

Oliver Letwin also seems to mean business. The Conservatives are searching for a new philosophical framework on which to build what they consider a new social consensus. Three times over the last month I have heard senior Tories talk about Edmund Burke. David Cameron told a room full of journalists two weeks ago that he “travels back to Burke” when searching for the politics of social change.  Some may consider this the same-old, same-old from the Tories, Burke being the ‘father of modern Conservatism’ and all that. The Conservatives, however, are thinking big; I feel it likely their social consensus agenda will go big on personal liberty and will, I should imagine, focus on the tyranny of those that are perpetrating anti-social behaviour and how a Tory government and its authority/authorities can turn back the tide.

These are two very different views of the world; one of them will dominate the next ten years of the third sector’s existence. We do have a trump card though: both Ed Miliband and Oliver Letwin, who are two very senior politicians, understand that without the third sector the social fabric of this nation would disintegrate. They know that this would leave the government, any government, bewildered and pretty much impotent. Knowing this to be true, think of the power we as a sector could wield if only we acted in unison.     

Ed Miliband and Oliver Letwin are writing their respective manifestos for the next election and both of them turned up and set out their stall. Rightly so, because for decades, indeed centuries, this sector has done what I heard one delegate call “our nation’s dirty work”. Toiling to carve out a good society, a civilised society, we are the backbone of this nation’s civil society.    

We must set out our stall and that stall must be a united stall. So NCVO, where now?

On that note I am off for a cigarette!  

Emma-Jane Cross is chief executive of Beatbullying

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