Charities welcome Starmer plans for sector partnership and ‘society of service’

22 Jan 2024 News

Keir Starmer at the Labour and Civil Society Summit

Luke Patrick Dixon

Keir Starmer has pledged to “reset” the relationship between government and charities, if his party is elected, and announced his vision for a “society of service”.

The leader of the opposition told a roomful of charity representatives today that “for too long, your voice has been ignored”.

“This is a once in a generation chance, a mission-led government, a partnership between government and civil society,” he said.

“Our door is open. We will welcome anyone who wants to make our national life better to take their place at the table to shape the future with us.

“And, I’ll be frank with you, it isn’t just an invitation to you – it’s an ask.”

He criticised the current Conservative government for “waging war” on charities such as the National Trust and RNLI that it considers to have “woke agendas”.

“The relationship between government and civil society needs a reset,” he told delegates at the Labour and Civil Society Summit in London, hosted by Pro Bono Economics.

“Because you should feel that you can speak up on behalf of the people you serve without fear, call out injustice where you see it, continue to push us to be able to do better.”

Starmer thanked those in the sector “whose work so often goes unsung” and said “you should not have to clean up the mess your government created”.

‘We want to harness civil society’

Starmer said he wanted to implement an action plan on how a future Labour government “would work with civil society for a society of service”.

He said Labour would work with the sector on each of its five missions, which are around building, energy, the NHS, community policing and increasing opportunities.

“Mission-led government is about partnership about devolving power to communities, setting long-term targets and working with people together, giving people the responsibility they deserve and the support that they need,” he said.

“We don’t want to crowd out the social entrepreneurs. We want to encourage them. We want to harness civil society as one of the three key engines for renewal, working alongside the public and private sectors.”

Civil society ‘essential’ to economy

Starmer said civil society was more than “something we can feel warm and fluffy about”.

“It’s essential if we're going to get our economy back on track and achieve the highest sustained growth in the G7,” he said.

“Look at the thousands of charities across the UK supporting people back into work.

“The organisations facilitating local regeneration or providing more than six million volunteering opportunities and employing almost a million people.”

A full transcript of Starmer’s speech can be read here.

Shadow minister plans further discussions with charities

Also speaking at the event, shadow civil society minister Lilian Greenwood said further discussions with charities would be held to inform the action plan announced by Starmer.

“Over the coming months, we’re going to be holding further conversations, roundtables and working groups as we develop a civil society mission action plan that harnesses your energy and expertise.

“So, it’s not just today this doesn’t have a great conversation and it comes to an end. There’s a follow up. We’re going to take this and to build on it.

“So, we’ll be looking at how a future government not only will deliver those missions, but might support the huge breadth of civil society organisations and I will do everything in my power to unlock your potential and to bring change to your communities.”

Greenwood previously told Civil Society about her plans to work with charities “to develop a new strategy, and for civil society to be part of developing what that partnership looks and feels like”.

“We have to make sure that is embedded across all departments so that everyone sees civil society as important in delivering our mission,” she said.

“I’m hoping that we’ve got that in place before a general election, so we’ll be able to know what we want to do if we get into power.”

Sector bodies welcome partnership pledges

Jane Ide, chief executive ACEVO, said: “Sir Keir’s speech today was a welcome recognition of the unique value of civil society. It is clear that our sector is intrinsic to the missions not only of a potential Labour government but to any incoming government in seeking to successfully deliver its aims.

“Our sector can do so much that the public and private sectors can’t; our position of trust in communities is key to achieving change and our voice in campaigning is needed to deliver effective public policy.

“We are ready to accept Keir Starmer’s ask to come to the table and work in partnership with a future Labour government, if that is the outcome of the next election, and to bring the unique, invaluable expertise within our sector to bear in enabling the people we are here to serve to thrive.”

Matt Whittaker, CEO of Pro Bono Economics, said Starmer “rightly acknowledged that the sector has been ignored for too long by policymakers, amid the competing demands of the state and business”.

“The ‘society of service’ vision identified in today’s speech marks the first time a political leader in the UK has set out a strategic vision for how the sector can serve as a partner to government since David Cameron’s ‘big society’ concept in 2010. 

“Importantly, this new vision also recognises the ‘essential’ role the sector has to play in the country’s economic regeneration.”

He added: “It is vital then that the government which comes to power following the next general election introduces concrete policies designed to help the sector unleash its full potential.”

Writing for Civil Society, NCVO chief executive Sarah Vibert said: “It feels like the relationship between the sector and Labour is headed in the right direction.

“There is a great amount of charity experience in Labour’s team. They understand the challenges – they’ve worked on the frontline.

She added: “Having five missions clearly set out gives the voluntary sector a framework in which to meaningfully engage and share our expertise.”

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