With every passing week, the possibility grows that Jeremy Corbyn will, sooner or later, become Prime Minister.
So it’s time the third sector asked Corbyn, and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, some searching questions about where it figures in their plans.
On the face of it, Labour should be pushing on an open door when it comes to our sector. Many of our leaders and staff are among its 570,000 members and its radical stance on most social issues goes down well, on the whole, in truth.
But it isn’t straightforward. Many people are worried: not by Labour’s vision for a fairer society, but by Corbyn’s view of our sector as merely symptomatic of the failure of the state to engineer a decent society. Corbyn’s visits to our organisations are welcome, but equally they underline the view that our organisations are merely sticking plasters and they should not be necessary in a well-functioning society.
Corbyn’s thinking contains two main mistakes. First is the assumption that a sophisticated and mature third sector is not necessary if we have a progressive government with the right aims. This simply isn’t true. A flourishing third sector, in which citizens freely organise, take action and have a voice, will be as necessary under a Corbyn government as it was under Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair or Theresa May.
Why? Because it will be required to call a Labour government out and give a voice to people outside the main power structures. And it will be needed to help a Labour government to tackle problems that are beyond easy, state-driven solutions and higher public spending.
This brings me to the second big mistake in Corbyn’s approach to our sector. He is on record, many times, for praising the public sector as the right provider for any public service.
While this view has been expressed partly in response to the Carillion collapse, the private finance initiative and other private-sector disasters, what he has overlooked is that the third sector delivers many community services, funded by the taxpayer, extremely well. The third sector is skilled at blending taxpayer funding with the freely given efforts of citizens and communities. That’s what it does.
And though Corbyn might not like to hear it, this particular type of delivery often reflects not only the failure of capitalism but also the failure of the state. Anyone who works alongside public services knows they are often very weak at engaging communities and users.
In truth, successful public service delivery in the 2020s and beyond needs to look more like what we do than what either local government or the NHS are capable of coming up with.
Make no mistake: handing back community services run by our sector to local government or the NHS would be an act of folly leading to fewer, dearer services that are shorn of their connections to communities.
The third sector in this country contains some of the brightest and most capable allies that any government committed to genuine social change could hope to find. If elected, the Labour government would find among us many natural allies as it faces the daunting task of rebuilding our social fabric.
For such a partnership to work, a Labour government would need to turn on its far-left heels and accept the more liberal view of our world-leading third sector: one where it is a valued element of a free society and not viewed as a temporary manifestation of failure that one day will be rendered unnecessary by a large, better-funded state.
Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and convenor of Social Club, a network for third sector chief executives.