Opinion: Let's have a bidding war, Labour versus the Tories

Voluntary organisations sometimes fail to understand how powerful they are, not least on the political front.

Policy pledges to ensure a thriving third sector should be the foundation of all political party manifestos. So as the buzz of the conference season recedes, it's time to seize an unprecedented opportunity to dictate our own terms instead of letting both Labour and the Conservatives off the hook.

Like timid rabbits caught in the headlights, some charities may be reluctant to engage with the Labour Party because it might not be there in 18 months, and with the Conservative Party for the opposite reason - it might well be in power then, so it mustn't be alienated in advance. What questions should we be asking? Questions about commissioning and funding, for a start. What's surprising about Labour and Tory policies is the overlap on commitments such as multi-year funding and fair contract terms. On closer inspection, however, nuanced differences emerge: a greater Tory emphasis on grant-funding small, local charities and independence from the state; Labour has focused more on public service delivery.

The Tory green paper pledge to monitor outcomes rather than delivery is refreshing, because New Labour's obsession with targets has tended to squash innovation and reduce skills. Labour's record should be examined, and the Conservatives should be pressed not only on the details of their proposals but also on their capacity to deliver. Will the Tories find it any easier than Labour to trust voluntary organisations without imposing prescriptive targets? Won't the first tabloid expose of misuse of funds inevitably lead to more onerous grant conditions?

Charities don't necessarily have to wait for a change of government to find out how things will work. After all, Tory-controlled councils could implement model funding agreements, creating local beacons of good practice. The next 18 months will be vital. The sector must hold its nerve and should not settle for less than it deserves. It should create a bidding war between Labour and the Tories and hold them both to account.

Or go further. At a time when the global financial system is in meltdown, why not press for an expansion of the third sector - a different way of doing things that carries cross-party support?

What are we waiting for?

- Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite and writes in a personal capacity.

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