Labour’s attitude to the charity sector "has not been right for most of its history" and a new Labour government would embed civil society in government policy development and services, according to Steve Reed, the shadow charities minister.
Speaking at the launch of the party’s new civil society strategy at the offices of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in London this morning, Reed said the old Labour reliance on nationalisation and state delivery of services was the wrong approach to take in regards to the charity sector.
"If you look at Labour’s approach to civil society over the decades, at one point we missed the potential of civil society because we were too ‘statist’," he said. "We thought the state would resolve everything.
"It can’t, because people need to participate to keep the state focused on the right things."
Reed also had criticisms of the approach taken by the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which he said were overly focused on measuring results.
"More recently, under the last Labour government, we got too obsessed with managerialism – if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – and outsourced an element of our politics to the giant accounting firms," Reed said.
"You can’t do that either. In different ways, Labour’s approach to civil society has not been right for most of its history."
He pointed out that the Labour Party was set up in part by civil society and pledged to make civil society central to plans to introduce more direct democracy in communities and to how government policy is developed.
The Conservatives, through their relegation of the charity sector during their time in power, had also "entrenched inequality and damaged democracy", Reed said.
"The Conservatives want to roll back the state," he said. "Labour will change the role of the state to make it a tool that people can use to achieve change on their own terms."
Reed also pledged to improve diversity in the sector’s leadership through the creation of an online leadership development college, to harness technology for the benefit of civil society, to improve charities’ representation in government departments and to ensure that the regulation of charities was "appropriate" and not "oppressive".
The response to the Labour Party’s civil society strategy from charity sector representatives was positive.
A statement from the Charity Finance Group said that Labour’s civil society strategy "offers a positive vision with many things to be hopeful about", in particular promises on increasing grant funding and the delivery of services at a local level.
"However, the key issue here will be around strategic and sustainable funding of this commitment, because these goals cannot be delivered effectively through piecemeal, short-term project funding, and need sufficient long-term support," the statement said.
Jay Kennedy, director of policy and research at the Directory of Social Change, said he was "thrilled" by the commitments to grant funding for smaller charities and to using dormant assets to support community projects.
But he warned that "there is much more work to do and details to be ironed out" to make the strategy reality.
Dan Corry, chief executive of the sector think tank NPC, said he hoped the new strategy would prompt "a battle of ideas over the future of the social sector in the next general election, something that was conspicuously absent in both 2015 and 2017".
But he warned that Labour had to see charities as providers of public services as well as advocates for communities.
Sir John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, said it was encouraging to see Labour focus on "mutual respect between government, civil society and the public", and on its promise to repeal the lobbying act.
"This strategy has an ambitious scope, but it could go further and details are needed to flesh out what the party would do in practice," he added.
Speaking at the launch, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, said the strategy was "very refreshing", adding that there were "some fantastic ideas".
He added: "Just as important is the narrative that was spelt out about a new way of doing things," he said. "Liberal democracy needs a massive refresh."