This week Labour launched its own Civil Society Strategy, hot on the heels of the government’s own document, which came out 10 months ago. As charities and funders, you need to know what’s in this new one and, with a knife-edge election widely tipped for later this year, what the difference between the two strategies is.

The first thing to understand is that while the government’s strategy is about ten times longer than Labour’s (clocking in at 123 pages) they both contain substantial policy proposals (though inevitably quite a few less in Labour’s version) and perhaps surprisingly, at times they both talk about similar things.

People and places

The two biggest areas of overlap are roughly ‘people’ and ‘places’.

In the government’s strategy there is a focus on young people. It tasks the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Education (DFE) with coming up with some proposals to help young people play a part in shaping the future of our society. £90m is allocated to a new youth organisation to help disadvantaged young people into work, there was a pledge to establish the National Citizens Service Trust as an independent public body. For people of all ages the government pledges to fund the training of 3,500 community organisers by 2020.

Labour’s strategy talks more about people in terms of giving them a say in the way their local communities are run. They want collaborative decision making between public service providers and users, and they see charities as a vehicle for this—especially where service users are vulnerable or otherwise ‘voiceless’. To this end they want to put more charities, community organisations and social enterprises onto Local Economic Partnerships (which could be crucial when it comes to distributing whatever replaces the European Social Fund).

The really striking similarities start to come in when we compare the two parities thinking about civil society in a place. Both the government and Labour use language that recognises that all places are not all starting from the same point and that some areas need more help than others, which is welcome. They also have a run of policies that seem in spirit, if not in practice, very similar. We’ve set these side by side in the table below.

Parallel policies

Conservatives Labour
The government will launch a new ‘Innovation in Democracy’ to pilot participatory democracy approaches.

 

Labour see digital and participation democracy as being vital as well, referring to inspiration they have taken from Decide Madrid, a platform in that city which hosts public consultations and debates but also enables citizens to make spending proposals and suggest new legislation.

 

The government say they will ‘continue to encourage the take up of community rights’. This includes providing guidance on how to take over local assets, such as community buildings.

 

Labour want to introduce a public right to control neglected community assets, and also challenges services which they feel are not being run well.

 

DCMS & DCLG will design a programme to look at more sustainable community spaces.

 

Labour will create a Community Innovation Fund for the running of community led activities in community spaces.

So, to be flippant, the future looks bright for anyone in in civil society enabling citizen participation or creating/converting community spaces.

These comparisons are interesting, but we should be careful not to oversell the similarities. There are far more differences than we have space to cover here (and you might argue that, due to the imbalance in length, they are not commensurate documents anyway).

Labour’s vision

As it only launched this week there is a couple of other points from the Labour Civil Society strategy to draw out.

The document is very clear that Labour will repeal the Lobbying Act. Their plan is to replace it with a Community Empowerment Charter, based on the principles of the Hodgson Review. They say this will ‘empower civil society organisations with clear parameters for fundraising, transparency accountability and representation’. The extent to which the act has a had a ‘chilling effect’ is up for debate, but this is relevant to a large amount of charities.

While that is a very clear and distinct commitment, our other observation is on the tone and language. In the document, charities are champions and advocates. They give voice to the voiceless. There is much less about service delivery and charities as providers. One nod is to increase the number of small grants for small charities, which is obviously welcome, but charities delivering services at scale are not referenced.

The fact we now have two strategies is hopefully a sign that we will see a battle of ideas over the future of social sector as we prepare for the next general election, something that was conspicuously absent in both 2015 and 2017.

Of course, we want to see a toughening up of annual impact reporting as part of the Commission’s processes. Many charities already do this, but most don’t. If we can get charities thinking seriously about their impact, the people they serve stand to benefit.

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