Policy, Policy, campaigns & research

Labour leader outlines ‘society of service’ in major speech on civil society

Jay Kennedy reflects on the Labour Party's latest engagement with the charity sector.

The General Election year began with a foretaste of what’s to come as Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer gave a major speech on civil society on 22 January, hosted by ProBono Economics.   

It was a significant statement of intent to have the leader of the opposition deliver a speech about the importance of civil society and to have so many senior members of the shadow cabinet also attending to engage directly with charity and social enterprise leaders. The speech was subsequently welcomed by sector bodies. 

Sir Keir was joined by many of his shadow ministers, including secretaries of state overseeing the party’s ‘five missions’, who took the stage alongside civil society leaders for panel discussions on themes relevant to their respective policy areas. The atmosphere was cordial and open, and even at times somewhat challenging and slightly uncomfortable for the politicians. 

We’ve been here before: will it be different this time? 

You have to hark back to the days of David Cameron as Conservative Party opposition leader to find a similar level of engagement and interest from national politicians in our sector. Prior to 2010, the Conservatives put substantial effort into developing policy proposals into developing a Green Paper, Voluntary Action in the 21st Century. Some of this found its way into Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ message, but much of it eventually fell victim to the fallout from the financial crisis and subsequent austerity agenda. What’s left from this period is mainly Big Society Capital and the National Citizens’ Service.  

Theresa May also made some overtures during her time as Prime Minister in 2017, but her vision of a ‘shared society’ was quickly swallowed up by the years of Brexit wrangling. Since then, influencing national politicians has proved very difficult, and not just for charities; the permacrisis of recent years has meant political chaos in Westminster is the new normal. 

Beveridge rebooted 

Sir Keir acknowledged this reality and positioned Labour as the party of stability, long-term thinking, and preventative approaches, where civil society would find an ally not an enemy. He said that ‘for too long civil society has been ignored by the shouts of the market and the state’ and ‘the relationship between government and civil society needs a reset’.  

He even admitted that ‘this engagement should have started a year ago’, but it had taken time to develop Labour’s own wider policy thinking around its five missions, and he promised that should it win the next election, ‘Labour will not write off the contribution of civil society’. He proclaimed that ‘you are the glue that bridges the gaps and binds people together’ and acknowledged the huge pressures that organisations are under in trying to support the most vulnerable in society during a cost-of-living crisis. 

Interestingly, not unlike Cameron’s pre-2010 narrative, he grounded his speech in the development of the welfare state after 1945 and the influence of William Beveridge. He credited civil society with pre-dating and inspiring much of Labour’s flagship achievements like the NHS and the welfare state, and argued that the point of the next Labour government wouldn’t be to overtake or replace civil society, nor to treat it as just another cog in a market-based approach.  

Rather, he promised that Labour would work with it in a spirit of partnership to solve the country’s biggest social, political and economic challenges, as part of the party’s decade-long plan for national renewal. 

‘Society of service’ 

There was one phrase that seemed to sum it all up. Starmer repeated the phrase ‘society of service’ as he sought to knit his commentary about civil society together with his wider vision. This should resonate because it inherently references ideas like voluntarism, caring and empathy, but also personal and social responsibility. Rather than being divisive or tribal, ‘society of service’ offers common ground to work together to address the country’s problems, for a multiplicity of groups and interests across the spectrum.  

Crucially, Starmer concluded his speech by saying his message wasn’t just intended as an invitation to dialogue, it was an ‘ask’ of individuals and organisations in the creation of ‘caring, compassionate communities’. The commitment, energy and even constructive criticism from our sector in response will surely not be in short supply. But this was clearly framed against Labour’s disciplined belief that the country’s public finances are in a bad state and difficult choices will have to be made on spending should they take power.  

It’s clear the next Labour government won’t be turning the money taps on, but tensions between so many competing priorities are already evident. Indeed, these types of questions from the audience seemed to provoke the most unease from the politicians present and probably evoked the most scepticism from the audience in turn. Those debates will have their day: the key takeaway from this event was that the door is open for dialogue in a way it hasn’t been for years, and we must take advantage of the opportunity.  

Civil Society action plan 

The Labour shadow minister for civil society, Lilian Greenwood MP, rounded off the event with the message: ‘Thank you, we need you, we’re with you’. New to the role, she is clearly in post to engage and listen to the sector and is actively reaching out and meeting different constituencies as part of developing a ‘civil society action plan’. This will be a big policy focus for the coming months, so watch this space. 

In terms of a positive message on civil society, Labour has clearly set the pace and we’ll see whether and how the other political parties respond as the election approaches. It’s important that charities seek to influence across the political spectrum on behalf of their beneficiaries and not treat the future as predetermined. Also, we must remember that national politics is only one part of the challenge this year. Local elections in May will matter hugely too. 

Whatever happens politically this year, it’s vital that the next government vastly improves its engagement with civil society to tackle the country’s problems, and works with charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups to unleash their full potential. We need to turn warm words into action.