Editorial: Labour needs to clarify its views

One major debate the party faces is about where it stands on public service reform and the role of the voluntary sector, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

Voluntary sector policy has been a difficult area for Labour since the last election.

It's found itself torn between attacking the big society as a fig leaf for cuts and saying it's a cynical appropriation of something that's been there all along; and it can't attack the cuts without reservation because it acknowledges that it would have made them too, although not so fast or as deep.

The party's response has been to take a step back and conduct a policy review, the first stage of which we report here. This draws together a wide range of views from MPs, the sector and academics, confines itself to summarising the situation and posing key questions, and is intended to inform debate about the sector at the party conference next week.

At this stage, the party is not putting forward any specific policies, not least because there are three years before the next election and it's far from clear how the government's policies are going to pan out in relation to the voluntary sector. But another reason for the hesitation, as the report intimates, is that Labour itself has got to clarify where it stands on some central issues.

The most important of these is the extent to which the state should be a provider or a commissioner of public services. The momentum of the present coalition government is strongly towards the latter, and Labour modernisers are sympathetic in principle if not in detail, not least because they think the voluntary sector could and should deliver more services.

But there are many in the party who are less sympathetic. Some feel that the state's role as a provider of key services safeguards fairness and access and should be protected; others believe that the main longer-term beneficiary of commissioning will be a rapacious private sector rather than a responsible voluntary sector.

The review admits that the party began to lose its narrative at the end of its time in government, and uncertainty over this question of public service reform might have been one of the reasons why.

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