Sixteen months on from Labour's defeat in the general election and one year into Ed Miliband's tenure as leader, little is known about the party's vision for the third sector. Shadow ministers have been quick to attack the government's big society agenda, but have offered few alternatives.
This year's Labour Party conference, which begins in Liverpool this weekend, could mark the party's first major attempt to define a new approach based on an evaluation of the party's record on the voluntary sector when in government.
The party acknowledges that it has been quiet on the voluntary sector, as on many other areas of policy, since it lost the election.
A spokesman for the shadow Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell says: "We will have a much clearer sense of direction in the next few months. But it is more than three years until the next election and we don't even know what the government's policy will be in that time, so we won't be announcing specific policies."
The desire of the party to learn from the mistakes of the past and plot a new way forward is evident in the work of a civil society policy review group comprising MPs, peers, academics, charity chief executives and umbrella bodies set up to scrutinise its record and outline a new approach for the manifesto.
The group's initial findings have been published in a document obtained by Third Sector, which is expected to form the basis for debates about the third sector at the party conference. The report, overseen by Jowell and the shadow civil society minister Roberta Blackman-Woods, provides a frank assessment of Labour's track record on the sector - in particular, criticising the party for running out of ideas and failing to engage properly with voluntary organisations during its latter years in power.
A louder voice
Peter Kyle, deputy chief executive of the sector leaders umbrella body Acevo, believes the party needs to go beyond such soul-searching and speak with a louder voice. "Labour isn't making the weather on the big society agenda," he says. "Opposing spending cuts is not enough. It isn't coming up with policies that are forward-looking and will define the debate for the next three or four years."
The party faces difficulties, however, in responding to the big society agenda. "We don't know where Ed Miliband stands on public service reform," says Kyle. "There may be pressure for Labour to adopt a 'preferred provider' policy that would make it more difficult for charities to deliver public services. If it did this, it would never win back the hearts and minds of the sector."
Phillip Blond, director of the think tank ResPublica and the man often credited as the intellectual force behind the big society concept, says Labour's problems are also ideological. "Labour has not yet worked out the balance between the state and civil society," he says. "The party needs to have some critique of state action, and it's not there yet."
Blond says, however, that now is the ideal time for charities to start talking to Labour about its policies. "Labour will govern again, and at the moment it is listening to the sector," he says. "The government has already decided where it stands on a lot of issues, but Labour is in the process of making up its mind. Now is a more important time than ever to talk to the party."
Not everyone agrees. One charity parliamentary lobbyist, who does not want to be named, says such a strategy would be premature - he sees value in charities trying to forge relationships with individual MPs and shadow ministers, but cautions against organisations exerting too much effort on trying to influence overall Labour policy.
"If you start trying to influence policy now, it will take a lot of time and energy without necessarily knowing what direction the party is heading in or what the world will look like in three years' time," he says.
"It is all very well getting something in someone's manifesto, but then they have to win the election. You could be investing a lot of time, only to discover that Labour changes tack within two or three years or goes on to lose the election."
There are signs of renewed vigour within the party, according to the charity parliamentary lobbyist. A younger generation of Labour MPs, including John Healey and Andy Burnham, have been keen to receive feedback from the third sector on issues such as health reforms and cuts to youth advisory services.
"There are a number of Labour politicians - the ones who were not the grandees of the last government - who are fresh enough, young enough and still have the hunger," he says.
A PARTY IN SEARCH OF A POLICY
"A panel of Labour MPs and peers, academics and representatives from the charity sector is in the middle of a review of the Labour party's voluntary sector policy. Kaye Wiggins selects the key extracts from a summary of its meetings to date.
What Labour did well
"Labour's creation of the Office of the Third Sector was viewed as an important step forward in the relationship between the sector and the state, aided by the rapid development of the OTS's role while Ed Miliband was minister."
"The work on the Social Wholesale Investment Bank and social bonds were singled out as welcome developments and areas to build on in the future."
"Policy strengths included dropping the Gift Aid threshold to zero as well as the reform of charity law, particularly through the Charities Act 2006."
Where Labour went wrong
"It was widely agreed that the originally successful partnership between the Labour government and the sector had fallen back towards the end of the period in government and new input into the sector had slowed down."
"It was felt that the sector did not know what Labour was trying to achieve beyond the general aim of increasing investment."
"Contributors highlighted how at times the investment in the development of an infrastructure lacked clarity and, as such, the full potential of such investment was not achieved."
What the government has got right
"The big society agenda has put the voluntary and community agenda at the centre of a very public political debate and this should be welcomed."
"The pathfinder mutuals programme was positively received by many participants and is seen to build on aspects developed under Labour."
"The big society was felt to offer scope for local solutions and provide more responsive and better quality services."
What the government has got wrong
"Some participants saw the big society brand as tainted and damaging to the sector as a result of poor communication and inextricable links to the government's programme of cuts."
"The point was made that the government had got rid of much of the infrastructure supply to the voluntary sector due to its perceived links with the previous Labour government. This has created a lack of expertise and long-term experience within the sector."
"The big society bank may not provide finance that is useful and accessible to the wide range of organisations that need it."
A major issue identified was the role of the Transition Fund and, in particular, what it was a transition towards. There was a widely acknowledged lack of clarity regarding the government's long-term plan."
Threats to the sector
"An increase in projects failing is generally expected as a result of the reduction in funding and the current economic climate. Concerns were raised that the increase in unsuccessful projects would prompt the introduction of competition in new areas and result in privatisation."
"There is a significant challenge facing volunteering, with the danger that it will increasingly be presented as an alternative to paid work or even as a substitute for it."
"Concerns were raised that smaller organisations are not consulted to the same extent as larger bodies and, as such, in a period of rapid change, their voice and opinions could be lost."
"It is important that the function of campaigning doesn't become the realm of the heavyweights in the charity sector. Local voluntary and community organisations must not lose the capacity to lobby for change, and job losses and funding cuts could disproportionately limit their ability to do so."
"The community and voluntary sector is too reliant on government capital. This could lead to uncertainty and leave the sector exposed to changes in government policy, which, over time, could have a detrimental impact on long-term planning."
What Labour should do next
"To be an effective opposition, Labour must point out the risks involved beyond only criticising the big society brand."
"The opposition must decide what form and shape they want public services to take."
A limited tax base must be accepted in the present climate and we must think about how to achieve higher outcomes at a lower cost. Some contributors suggested it is important to innovate in services and it may be the case that the private sector can facilitate this."
"A point was made that where there is diversity of provision, the state's role is to scrutinise that provision, fund advocacy when there are problems for users and to regulate."
"A potential area for government involvement was identified in the provision of guidance and clarification of procurement laws for the voluntary and community sector."
"The issue of public accountability has not been addressed satisfactorily. One way of addressing it is through 'multi-stakeholder mutualisation', or the need for any community or voluntary organisation to be a balanced one (ie representing in equal parts the workers, funders and consumers, and rejecting either top-down control or entirely bottom-up models)."