Editorial: A sideshow in the political picture

With the Labour Party conference coming up, there is little sign that policies about the voluntary sector will feature highly in the big political debates, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

After the 2010 election, the Labour Party conducted a review of its record on the voluntary sector that concluded it had done well in its years in power but had made money the measure of everything and run short of ideas. Since then, it has been reassessing its position and is working on new policies.

The party's shadow charities minister, Gareth Thomas, outlines some of these in our interview with him. There are plans for community reinvestment legislation of the kind that has successfully increased bank lending in deprived areas of the US and backing for greater sector involvement in the setting of council budgets.

But no single big idea has yet emerged along the lines of the big society. Like everyone else, Labour has been rather flummoxed by David Cameron's elusive concept, unsure whether to mock it or to claim indignantly that part of its own agenda has just been dressed up in Tory clothes. Perhaps the big society illustrates why big ideas might be best avoided, at least until they've been properly pinned down.

So where are the disagreements? Thomas is right to say that the government is taking forward some Labour policies under a different name. Big Society Capital was conceived under the last administration, the Transition Fund recalled the Third Sector Action Plan, and the Community First programme is reminiscent of Grassroots Grants. And Thomas finds it difficult to object to many of the government's other sector initiatives, including the National Citizen Service.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion, as we go into the party conference season, that the voluntary sector is a sideshow in the big political picture. The arguments are more about the level of resources than matters of principle. Both main parties have their minds on the questions that could really change the game - their leadership and the management of the struggling economy. And inasfar as the sector features at all - well, they both love it, don't they, and have its best interests at heart.

- Read our analysis

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