Following this week's Labour conference, David Ainsworth reviews what we've learned about the party's policies for the voluntary sector.
This year’s Labour party conference was a surprisingly lacklustre affair for the last such event before an election. Perhaps the conference was overshadowed by the events in Scotland, and the subsequent debate about devolution. Perhaps no one had got their head back into the game of party politics.
It wasn’t just the politicians, either. It looked as if there were fewer sector policy bodies there than normal. Although there were still a lot of charity chief executives present, trying to get one-to-ones with politicians.
But if it was quieter than expected, it was still useful, as far as the sector was concerned, because we’re finally beginning to see a coherent policy narrative around the sector beginning to emerge.
Lisa Nandy, the shadow minister for the sector, was absolutely everywhere, zipping from room to room, stopping to give a speech, answer a couple of questions, and then zipping off again.
She had a decent level of support from her fellow MPs, too. At the launch of the Acevo-CAF initiative, the Red Book on the Voluntary Sector, a collection of essays on charity and social enterprise by Labour politicians, half a dozen Labour bigwigs (or at least middlewigs) stood up and spoke with some intelligence and knowledge about the state of the sector.
At last year’s Conservative conference the then-minister Nick Hurd was similarly omnipresent. But he was out on a limb, rushing round by himself, giving the impression that the rest of his party had completely abandoned his brief.
This year, interestingly, a couple of the chief executives at the conference reported that while they’d had good access to shadow ministers across a whole range of departments, their Tory equivalents had offered a mixture between a cold shoulder and a closed door. Evidently the party is increasingly closed to lobbying from the sector, not just in its policies but its actions.
No one seemed to have bothered to find out whether the Lib Dems were interested in being lobbied.
So what are the Labour policies?
Labour is obviously still developing its manifesto for the sector, but there were some broad hints at the thinking.
I think we can divide the proposals into two broad groups – the thematic and the specific.
Thematically, Labour is promising a return to grants, a new attitude to commissioning, a continuation of support for social investment, and a new deal on campaigning.
The first two are very welcome proposals, because the sector, on the whole, prefers grant funding, and because God knows, commissioning needs reform. But they both prompt pretty much the same question: how are you going to do it? The sector enters into grant and contract agreements with more than a thousand different public sector entities, and it’s likely to be very hard for the Office for Civil Society, a small department in Whitehall, to influence practice in the coastguard or Cumbria Council or a clinical commissioning group in Cheshire.
It’s probably pretty hard to change procurement in Whitehall if you’re the prime minister. It’s probably pretty hard to get it done in your own department. I bet some of the Office for Civil Society’s contracts aren’t Compact-compliant.
So anyway, if you want change, you’re going to need to get some oomph behind you from somewhere in government. You’re going to need some power.
There was a vague promise that the party is looking at giving the Social Value Act real teeth, which would give Lisa Nandy the clout to drive reform, and would I suspect be extraordinarily welcome in the sector. But that’s just a mutter for the moment.
I suspect the sector’s probably less keen on a commitment to further social investment. All the evidence suggests a lot of charities are tired of even hearing the words.
This is a bit of a shame, because social investment, done right, has the potential to be an extremely powerful tool. But I can understand why many charities feel it’s just a bunch of wide boys and posh boys out of the city, suddenly trying to tell the sector it would be better off employing the kind of dubious financial prestidigitation which derailed this country six years ago.
The one area where Labour is likely to have the power for change and the complete backing of the sector is around lobbying. From Labour’s attitude over the last few weeks, it looks like if they get into power, the Lobbying Act will be one of the shortest-lived bits of legislation ever to flit through the statute books. And good riddance, to be honest.
Whether the party will remain as keen on being lobbied once it achieves power is doubtful at best. Last time Labour was in power, it got noticeably frostier towards the sector as time went by.
Jolly good. But what are the actual policies?
Well, the Community Reinvestment Act is still on the cards. This is a genuinely good idea which the sector needs to get behind, although actually only a relatively small number of sector bodies will directly benefit. It will make transparent how much is lent by banks in each community, and will drive cash into poor communities.
Then there’s a promise to get charities involved in running local enterprise partnerships – those amorphous local-to-regional bodies which dish out hundreds of millions of government and EU cash. This would be welcome, since they’re completely baffling to me and I suspect to most of the sector.
There’s a proposal to scrap gagging clauses in charity contracts, which is welcome. There’s one to create regional ministers which is being presented as a win for charities but I suspect really has nothing to do with them. And there are schemes for social innovation zones for deprived areas where charities can win more funding. There’s also a proposal to reform solicited bids at the Big Lottery Fund to prevent them being leaned on by ministers to fund their pals. These are all good but hardly world-changers.
Another previously proposed policy – time off for charity trustees to volunteer – seems to have disappeared for the moment. This is also a good policy, so let’s hope they’ve not buried it altogether.
So what does this mean?
Basically that Labour are going to be a reasonably attractive option for charities if they get into power. Obviously it depends a lot more on their wider attitude to things like poverty, social mobility and welfare. And we don’t know the details of their charity policies yet. But they do have a minister who knows what the sector needs.
As ever, the question for her will be whether she can push it through.