Don’t expect any big Labour policy announcements on the charity sector. Keir Starmer’s speech at the Civil Society Summit this morning tried to reset the tone of the relationship between the government and civil society. Just as the shadow cabinet is doing with business, Starmer clearly wants to inspire the third sector to help deliver Labour’s five national missions. He is dispensing with the combative rhetoric from the Tories, many of whom view the failure to wrest back control from progressive ideologues in charities and Blairite appointees in arms-length public bodies as an indictment of the past 14 years.
Less so, Starmer. He doesn’t seem to think bodies like the National Trust have an ideology. “Waging a war on the proud spirit of service in this country isn’t leadership,” he said. So this is his offer: help us deliver the national missions and we won’t pester you about your latest exhibition on the slave trade.
Of course, Starmer is not the first politician to hail the sector. David Cameron’s Big Society was an appeal to the voluntary sector – under the guise of civic conservatism – to fill the gaps left by austerity cuts, for the state to be rolled back and for civil society to take its place. The Big Society was at best an acknowledgement that Thatcherite individualism had gone too far. It was a hope that someone would patch over the cuts to local government. As Starmer put it: “A great idea, in principle. But when austerity kicked in, we ended up with the Poor Society.”
And the cuts were severe. The amount of money Westminster gave to councils dropped 40 per cent in real terms from 2009-10 to 2019-20. At the same time, demand for public health and social care, which councils are legally obliged to provide, rose. This means spending on other areas – such as libraries, road maintenance and bus services – took a hit. More than 780 libraries have been closed since 2010. Throw in inflation and some bad investments over the years and the result is that eight councils have effectively declared bankruptcy this decade. The problem for Starmer’s plans for a “renewed social contract” is that councils facilitate much of civil societies’ work, from libraries to youth centres. A strong local council often provides services upon which local communities can build.
Defending the National Trust against accusations that it spends more time parading its commitment to anti-racism than conserving history makes sense when more than five million people are members. But if Starmer wants to fix a “frayed social fabric” and restore the contract between the public, private and third sectors, the first place he will have to look is in the government’s own backyard.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.
[See also: Labour and the curse of history]