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How should Labour work with the voluntary sector in government?

By Dan Corry 5 September 2023 5 minute read

In this blog, Dan Corry, NPCs Chief Executive, draws on his extensive experience working for the previous Labour government to outline simple steps that a new Labour administration could take to help civil society, and in doing so, help itself. During his time in Whitehall, Dan worked as a special advisor in several departments, including the Treasury and Downing Street. 

When and if Labour wins the next election, they will have a great deal that they will want to do, along with a fairly empty Exchequer wallet. Having worked for Labour in opposition many years ago, I can be fairly sure that at this point in the electoral cycle, thinking about how they can work well with civil society will be far down their list of priorities. Yet, with a bit of action, they could get the voluntary sector well on side to help them meet their 5 missions, stimulate local economic growth, and create excitement across the country that will stand them in good stead, as they battle to get (sustainable) growth going and strengthen our battered public services.   

One of the lesser-known things about the last Labour government was that despite its often rather top-down approach to life, it did try to work with the sector. While by no means perfect, the New Labour government worked with voluntary organisations on service delivery, listened to their feedback, included them in debates and consultations, and allowed them to have a say inside departments. Indeed, whilst I was working as a special adviser for the Department of Trade and Industry in 1997, I recall the shock of officials that we (as a new government) wanted to engage with trade and development charities on trade policy, the trade unions and poverty charities on the minimum wage, family friendly policy, and employment laws, and consumer and debt charities on competition policy. They were also shocked by just how well informed – often better than our officials – that the NGOs were! 

There are many things that Labour could (and should) do that are both easy and costless, which could deliver profound change some of which I outlined in a paper I wrote a few years ago with Professor Gerry Stoker. But I hope it is useful to mention a few here. 

Firstly, it needs to lead from the very top. This was something that Gordon Brown was pretty good at. As Prime Minister, he spoke very early in his premiership about his desire to do things in this area and crucially formed and chaired the Council on Social Action(CoSA), which was led by notable charity sector figure David Robinson, then CEO of Community Links. In a fascinating assessment of what they did, it is clear that CoSA put a number of ideas on the table and shook up the Whitehall machinery, challenging it to think hard and think differently (The Big Society was for a time David Cameron’s attempt to push movement in this sort of area but for a variety of reasons, not least austerity, it never really got anywhere). Showing the government and its supporters that the PM cares about civil society makes everything else easier.  

However, that is not enough on its own. In the Labour days, there was a Compact at the national level between the government and civil society organisations, to try to ensure that they worked better in partnership. Amongst other things, this guaranteed regular high-level meetings. With Secretaries of State having to attend, this meant that they, and their officials, also paid attention to what the sector wanted and facilitated input. It also led to local Compacts, which were powerful – if rarely perfect!  

Finally, to learn from the past, we need the Minister for Civil Society to be liberated from the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and placed back into the Cabinet Office, with Minister of State rank. We also need the Cabinet Office Minister who attends Cabinet to take the issue seriously. Not only would this be a powerful gesture in itself, but it would also send a strong signal to Whitehall that this is an issue that the government cares about and needs to be thought about beyond one department. 

Future thinking 

So far so good in terms of looking at New Labour’s greatest hits. But it did not go far enough. Ideas to carry forwards include having every government department publish an annual paper on how it will engage with civil society, with each public service having to do the same, and using a civil society ‘test’ for new policies. In other words, paying serious attention as to whether policies could be achieved through using the voluntary sector, rather than other ways. Such a shift in attitude could have stopped the costly creation of the National Citizen Service, which was fueled by a top-down approach awarding big contracts, and instead created an opportunity for youth volunteering charities to deliver the same services more cheaply, efficiently and effectively.  

Other ideas to consider include allowing civil society easier access to government data, support for more evaluation tools like the Justice Data Lab, reviewing procurement to make sure that charities get a fair chance of winning contracts, and getting rid of gagging clauses (and other recent measures) that stifle the legitimate voice of civil society. Going even further, we at NPC have advocated for the creation of a Civil Society Improvement Agency to help the sector to benchmark and learn.  

All of these changes, alongside the specific interventions and programs that the sector already undertakes at the national and local level, could help Labour to deliver on its 5 missions something which we at NPC have been feeding into their front bench in different ways.      

In the end, the key issue is about attitude and culture. If a new Labour government takes the sector seriously, it will be harnessing a very useful asset. One that will not always do what it is told and will continue to campaign for change as it is its ‘duty’. However, simple institutional changes could make sure that that culture has the best chance of taking root.  


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