Boosting civil society takes more than schmoozing the National Trust

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It’s a sign of how pervasively rightwingers have upended UK politics that Labour strategists are wooing National Trust Woman, who walks her dog in heritage gardens and enjoys a cream tea. In attacking Conservatives who have accused the National Trust of wokery, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has rolled his tanks onto the genteel lawns of Middle England.

National Trust Woman will not be easily won over. In claiming that the culture wars are a figment of the imagination invented by Tories who see a “woke” assault on their values behind every corner, Starmer side-stepped concerns about everything from critical race theory to white privilege classes to the cancellation of gender-critical feminists. Nevertheless, when Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Tory MPs portrayed the National Trust as a symbol of all that was wrong with Britain, and promoted their own candidates to the ruling council, they were taking a liberty with an independent institution whose 5mn members can make up their own minds.

“Civil society”, the topic of Starmer’s speech this week, is tricky territory for politicians. Tony Blair was floored at the height of his powers in 2000, when 10,000 members of the Women’s Institute slow hand-clapped him for trying, they thought, to co-opt them into politics. David Cameron, whose Big Society concept Starmer praised this week, annoyed some volunteer groups who thought, wrongly, that he was telling them to do what they were already doing perfectly well without his help.

Starmer’s proposal to create a “society of service”, and his pledge to back charities and social enterprises, does feel encouraging. The social fabric has suffered from cuts to youth groups, meals on wheels and all sorts of services which kept things going. If Starmer genuinely wants to give more power to communities and social entrepreneurs this could be revolutionary: as long as he understands that they thrive best when government gets out of the way, not when it imposes bureaucracy or ideology.

Charities can be more effective than the state in everything from combating gang violence to getting people back into work. But the government mentality struggles to value charities which don’t fit neatly into departmental silos. It’s easier to contract with big bidders than with small, nimble organisations which don’t have national reach and may not have correctly filled out the quality assurance paperwork.

The Big Society failed to take off partly because the coalition government cut local authority funding after the global financial crash. But that was not the only problem. The idea of empowering communities and unleashing entrepreneurial spirit in public services was anathema to the vested interests which hoard power. When Cameron’s government enabled parents to band together to set up and run free schools, many predicted disaster: how could ordinary parents possibly run schools? Some did fail, and some have been rescued by academy chains. But free schools are now more likely to be rated outstanding than any other school, according to a new report, and several are consistently ranked among the highest performing state schools in the country.

Social entrepreneurs transform lives by going against conventional thinking. The Grameen Bank, started in Bangladesh by Muhammad Yunus, broke every rule in the banking book by giving uncollaterised micro loans to women living in poverty. But its default rates are far below those of traditional banks, and it has helped millions to start small businesses. Ashoka, created by Bill Drayton, has had a huge impact for relatively small amounts of money by backing individuals with good ideas, rather than following the aid agency rubric of backing projects. In the UK, Sir John Timpson hired ex-prisoners to run around a tenth of his shops, by trusting them when no one else would, and the vast majority have never reoffended.

I mention these three people because I’m lucky enough to have met them all. There are many others. The point is that transformative societal ideas usually come from standing in somebody else’s shoes and imagining what they need to flourish. That’s very different to Whitehall’s usual solutions of specialist intervention teams, multi-agency working and tiny pots of money spread too thinly to make a difference.

Starmer talks a lot about partnership. He wants a partnership between government and business and a partnership between government and civil society. It’s not clear if he means reframing the role of the state, or imposing more regulation. As one business leader said to me acidly at last year’s Labour party conference: “I don’t want a b***dy ‘partnership’ with government, I want to get on with running my company.”

The state doesn’t always know best. Families in many parts of Britain are struggling despite decades of interventions; the staff helping them are restricted to narrow, unfulfilling tasks. Retired doctors who volunteered to return to the NHS were told to take counter-terrorism training. Would-be foster carers are told they can’t foster two same-sex siblings over the age of nine if they only have one spare bedroom.

If he is serious about “giving people the responsibility they deserve and the support they need”, Starmer should take some risks. The Conservatives have set up “freeports”, areas of the country which have been released from many economic regulations. Why should Labour not create what the social entrepreneur Josh MacAlister calls “social freeports”, places where locals could be genuinely empowered to design and run services? That — unlike publicly defending the National Trust — would be genuinely revolutionary.

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