The Labour Party conference kicked off on Monday morning with an ego-deflating moment for a couple of sector leaders when Paul Hackett of the Smith Institute stood up and introduced the speakers at the Social Investment Forum fringe event.
“This is Nick Donoghue and Stephen Budd,” he announced. Nick O’Donohoe and Sir Stephen Bubb glanced at one another.”Was that right?” Hackett asked. “Close enough,” said Bubb, with a bit of forced jollity.
But the day got better, at least from a charitable point of view. Two sessions run by the Charities Aid Foundation and the Social Investment Forum were well attended and were filled with lively debates about giving, social investment, volunteering and campaigning.
The events were relatively well attended by MPs, too. Seasoned campaigners inform me that you’re doing well if you get four MPs to come to a fringe event. The CAF event cheated a bit, mind, by having three just on its panel.
There were signs that Labour is developing some credible sector policies.
Both Hazel Blears, MP for Salford and Eccles, and Gareth Thomas, shadow minister for civil society, talked extensively about a Community Reinvestment Act, which would require banks to lend in poor communities, or to make investments through third sector lenders if they won’t do it themselves.
This isn’t a new policy, mind you. Blears advocated it when Labour was in power, and Thomas made it clear it was still high on his agenda a year ago. But Thomas also hinted that he was thinking about giving volunteers the same rights as governors and magistrates to take time off work to carry out their duties. I got the impression the proposal is being pondered, rather than set in stone, and he said he was keen to hear from business, so if the sector thinks this is valuable, it may have to fight quite hard for it.
Thomas also suggested setting a joint strategic direction for the Charity Commission, Big Society Capital and the Big Lottery Fund, although the proposal has its flaws – not least that the BSC is completely independent of government and can’t be told what to do. And it’s questionable whether the commission needs another new government requiring it to change strategy again.
Among charities themselves, there was a lot of worry about campaigning. The government and the right-wing press seem suddenly to have decided to really put the boot in to campaigning organisations, and there was a new indication of it yesterday: at the CAF event, David Babbs, founder of campaigning group 38 Degrees, stood up to talk. He revealed he had been due to talk at the Conservative party conference, too, but the Tories have banned him from attending. He didn’t seem too happy about it, but it seems like a sign of success for me. If you’re a campaigner and you don’t annoy some people, you aren’t doing your job.
Another encouraging sign came in the evening at the Third Sector Reception, organised by Acevo. The event was relatively brief on speeches but long on booze – which perhaps reflects the style of its leader, Sir Stephen Bubb.
Clapping broke out when Labour leader Ed Miliband dropped in to say how important the sector was to his plans. Peter Kyle, the former deputy chief of Acevo and now a Labour candidate in Hove and and Portslade, also spoke at the event. During Kyle’s speech, Miliband stood absolutely still, staring straight ahead, as if he were a robot switched on to provide policy – a Milibandroid, if you will.
Miliband was the first minister for the third sector, many moons ago, and he reminisced about being pestered by Acevo during his time in office. He added that the sector was crucial to his plans and was off again. But it’s encouraging, for a beleaguered sector, that he was there at all.