Andrew Purkis: The civil society-shaped hole in Keir Starmer’s vision for Britain

07 Nov 2023 Voices

A month on from the Labour leader’s conference speech, Andrew Purkis urges the opposition party to involve charities in its plans for the country…

Official portrait of Keir Starmer

Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

There is a gaping hole in Keir Starmer’s five missions, as set out on the Labour Party’s website and in his recent party conference speech.

Framing the five missions, and repeated again for each individual mission when you look in more detail, is this call for unity and partnership: “These missions will only be achieved through relentless focus. They require government departments working together. Business working with unions. The private sector with the public sector. And a common partnership between national and local government.”

No prizes for spotting the hole: the entire third sector – civil society – is missing. What a dire omission.

Starmer’s conference speech

In Starmer’s conference speech, there is one admiring reference to the volunteers who love their communities and stand up for clean water. There’s an imprecise commitment to “give power back and put communities in control” but without any specific reference to voluntary organisations as part of this.

Apart from that, there’s nothing about civil society in the promised decade of national renewal – despite his huge emphasis on prevention and long-term solutions rather than the “sticking plaster politics” of the government; and despite the constraints on public spending.

You’d never know from his speech that 16.3 million people formally volunteered through groups and clubs in the UK in 2020-21 or that they, and a wider sector receiving about £30bn pounds from the public, might have something to do with national renewal or prevention.

Labour’s five missions

As the stage is set for a probable new Labour or Labour-led government, civil society is assigned the most meagre of bit parts even in the more detailed explanations of the missions on the party’s website. 

For example, you might think that the mission to replace the “sickness service” by an NHS more attuned to prevention, healthy living and better health and social care in the community might have rather a lot to say about partnership with civil society?

Wrong. In the whole, lengthy explanation of this “prevention-first revolution”, there is one brief mention of civil society in helping to ensure health is a dimension of all policies, and one mention of “help from voluntary and community groups to tackle issues like loneliness and isolation”. And that’s it. All those thousands of voluntary and community groups already engaged in this mission: eat your hearts out.

What about the mission to “take back our streets”? A welcome principle is adumbrated that “a whole system approach to reform across all sectors both from government and civil society is needed if we are ever to break the cycle of crime, see fewer victims, and see offenders brought to justice effectively”, but this insight isn’t followed through and integrated in the policy proposals. 

Voluntary organisations have a critical role in issues like violence against women and girls, knife crime, youth work, diverting vulnerable people from gangs, drug and alcohol addiction, the distinctive challenges of ethnic minority (global majority) communities, LGBTQIA+ people etc and, more broadly, community cohesion. But these barely even register in the exposition of this mission.

The fifth mission is “breaking down barriers to opportunity”. Same story. Despite the crucial contribution of civil society to early years support and childcare, to sport, music, drama and the arts, to mental health in schools, this is mostly invisible in Labour’s vision for the future.

According to Pro Bono Economics, civil society provides as much training as local authorities and about half as much as further education colleges, but you wouldn’t guess this from this Labour discussion of how to improve and diversify skills training.

Charity employees and volunteers are ‘working people’ too

One of Starmer’s repeated propositions is that working people currently feel that they are taken for granted, or seen as pieces on a board game played by out-of-touch (currently Conservative) ministers, who don’t understand what real life is like. This is to be replaced by a fresh bargain: a Labour government will be trusted to respect, understand and serve working people, while the latter drive our country forward.

Please remember, Labour leaders, that those employed in civil society are working people, too. They have been increasing at almost twice the rate of the rest of the economy and now number nearly one million. So let’s hope they don’t feel that their contribution and real struggles for the public benefit are taken for granted or ignored in any vision for a new government. Nor 16 million volunteers, either.

Not a niche issue

This gaping hole is a startling failure, and a wake-up call both for Labour Party and civil society leaders.

If the Labour front bench is sceptical of the claims of civil society leaders themselves, they might like to start with Gus O’Donnell’s foreword to the recent report by the Law Family Commission on Civil Society: “The private sector, the public sector, and civil society each need to be operating at maximum strength if our country is to achieve its full potential in growth, sustainability and social progress […] All three have contributions to make which can improve the workings of the others. Where all three are pulling in the same direction they create a powerful force.”

Surely many Labour politicians will agree with every word – so please can they say so?

It is encouraging that Lilian Greenwood, shadow minister for civil society, heritage and the arts, is talking of developing a Labour strategy for civil society. But a reading of Starmer’s five missions shows that such an exercise needs to be more than a subject-specific piece of work entrusted to a junior shadow minister within their niche brief. What we are up against is an apparent blind spot for the whole third sector of society at the highest level.

Yes, there is rich scope for serious engagement and dedicated policy thinking about how a future government should interact with, and support, a healthy civil society – as there was before Labour’s 1997 election victory. But if there is such a failure thus far to integrate the massive role of the third sector in the core vision of national renewal, the core Labour offer to the nation, we haven’t even got to first base.

Time is getting a bit short for Starmer and the Labour shadow cabinet to amplify, rebalance and enrich their core vision in order to recognise and embrace the contribution of civil society, without which any government will fail.

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