Last night I went to Lambeth town hall in London for the first of a series of public meetings by the council to discuss its plans to become a co-operative.
In practice, the plan means the council will launch a series of pilot projects in which local residents run public services, and will look favourably on other local voluntary and community groups that identify services they think they can run better than the council.
The 70 or so local residents that gathered in the crowded room to discuss the idea seemed keen. But more than one of them said the plan sounded very close to the government‚Äôs big society agenda – considered surprising since Lambeth council is Labour-controlled.
Council leader Steve Reed did his best to put some clear blue water between the council and the government. ‚ÄúBig society is about rolling back the state, whereas this is about changing the role of the state,‚ÄĚ he said.
He was backed by fellow councillor Paul McGlone, who said: ‚ÄúBig society is people doing something for nothing, and we don‚Äôt believe in that.‚ÄĚ
Both were keen to say that, despite the recent announcement that Lambeth would cut its voluntary sector funding for young people‚Äôs services by up to 35 per cent from January, the co-operative plan was not just about saving money. It was a better, and more cost-effective, way of providing services, they insisted.
Lambeth is a good place to pioneer the co-operative council model: there is already a strong voluntary sector locally, and a tradition of community activism.
But if the plan proves successful, might the coalition government look beyond party politics and encourage other local authorities to do the same?†
Read more on Not so looney: Lambeth Council’s bid to become a co-operative could be taken up elsewhere…
Headless chickens come to mind as we watch Labour and Conservatives running around in search of the best way to neutralise the Clegg effect. It‚Äôs brought the election alive in a slightly disturbing way ‚Äď might we actually end up with something daring, like scrapping Trident or joining the Euro?
Of special interest to the voluntary sector is that David Cameron has not reached for his ‚Äėbig society‚Äô idea as his party looks desperately for a way to revive its fortunes. Quite the opposite, if a story in yesterday‚Äôs Guardian is to be believed. It seems that the idea is being quietly pushed into the background.
Some of the remarks from unnamed shadow cabinet ministers are quite savage. ‚ÄúThe ‚Äėbig society‚Äô is bollocks,‚ÄĚ one was quoted as saying. Another attributed the idea to manifesto supremo Oliver Letwin and commented: ‚ÄúWe need to turn his Hegelian dialectic into voter friendly stuff.‚ÄĚ
The ‚Äėbig society‚Äô is a nice ideal ‚Äď a society where we all care and share and participate. But it will always be seen by some as an unrealistic pipe dream, and by others as an elaborate fig leaf for ‚Äėsame old Tories, same old cuts.‚Äô One things seems crystal clear: it‚Äôs not much of a vote winner in the current state of play.
Read more on Is David Cameron about to shelve the ‘big society’?…
How many ways can you say I love you? That was the dilemma facing members of the shadow Cabinet when they turned out in force yesterday to cosy up to a hundred or so charity delegates at the Conservative Party third sector summit.
Chief executives body Acevo is staging summits with the three main political parties to find out their plans for charities.
This one was held in Millbank, where Labour masterminded its 1997 election victory. Millbank is now the Conservative HQ and, as Acevo chief executive Stephen Bubb pointed out in his welcome speech, home of our dear Charity Commission. This caused some titters.
Shadow chancellor George Osborne got things going by talking about charities running more services. Shadow Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude then criticised Labour‚Äôs ‚Äėinitiative-itis‚Äô, but with a general election probably just seven weeks away delegates could have really done with a few more details.
In the absence of any new policies or initiatives and with six hours to fill, the speakers resorted to ways of saying how inspiring, professional, passionate, innovative and expert charities were.
The last time the Tories were in power, Dolly the Sheep was being cloned and the closest many Conservatives got to the voluntary sector was opening the annual village fete. Who would have thought then that 13 years later the party‚Äôs entire top team, bar its leader, would fill a lecture room overlooking the River Thames with humble charity folk?
The Tories have certainly come a long way, but time hung heavy. Engaging is all very well, but at this stage of the electoral cycle something more conclusive is required.
Read more on Six-hour Tory love-in at the Acevo summit…
Shadow charities minister Nick Hurd announced to delegates at the Funding the Future conference yesterday that he was going to tell them something they might know already.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs going to be a general election soon.‚ÄĚ
It was not the first time he‚Äôd made the joke. He said it last week at an Institute of Fundraising conference, and Third Sector colleagues tell me he‚Äôs said it on other occasions too.
But if there is going to be an election, it would be reasonable to expect both Hurd and charities minister Angela Smith to use yesterday’s conference ‚Äď at which more than 1,000 charity workers were gathered ‚Äď †to promote manifestos detailing what they would do if they became third sector minister after the election.
But alas, this was not the case. Smith took to the podium first, and gave a potted history of Government policy on the voluntary sector, which sang the praises of the NCVO‚Äôs Funding Central website, the recession action plan and Grassroots Grants (but neglected to mention the axed ¬£750,000 Campaigning Research Programme).
She spoke about ‚Äúchallenges and opportunities for us all‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúbuilding long-term capacity‚ÄĚ but, aside from mentioning her excitement about the forthcoming social investment wholesale bank, did not discuss future policies.
Nick Hurd‚Äôs attempt offered more, but not much more. He reiterated his belief that the third sector should really be the ‚Äúfirst sector‚ÄĚ, said charities and community groups were the ‚Äúglue that holds communities together‚ÄĚ and criticised what he called Labour‚Äôs ‚Äúinitiative-itis‚ÄĚ.
On policy, he said the Tories would start with making it easier for charities to claim Gift Aid, by cutting through what he called a ‚Äúthicket of regulation‚ÄĚ. But he said discussions on bringing in an opt-out system were ‚Äúnot going anywhere.‚ÄĚ
He said he wanted to encourage individuals to donate more to charity, and he wanted the Big Lottery Fund to be more independent of government. He also wanted to develop a ‚Äúculture of intelligent grant-giving,‚ÄĚ he said.
But the audience was not swayed. As I left the hall, I heard delegates saying Hurd ‚Äúdidn‚Äôt say anything proper‚ÄĚ and was treating the occasion as a job interview. Those I spoke to afterwards seemed unanimous in the view that things would be difficult under another Labour government, but that it was ‚Äúbetter the devil you know‚ÄĚ.†
Read more on Funding the Future conference: policy was thin on the ground as Nick Hurd recycled his jokes…
The sector wants another Labour government – not by a slim margin but by a massive one. That is the finding from the State of the Sector survey Third Sector carried out with research agency nfpSynergy.
These results do come with caveats; it‚Äôs a self-selected online survey for a start, but I doubt many would be shocked to find Labour is the sector‚Äôs party of choice.
What is surprising is the size of Labour‚Äôs lead over the Conservatives, given how unpopular Gordon Brown‚Äôs government is with the wider public.
The survey offered no insights into why this might be, but there are several possible explanations. One might be that those taking part found it hard to untangle their own political views when they answered, so the result reflects the bias of the sector‚Äôs employees.
Another might be that the Conservatives have not yet convinced the sector that it will be safe in their hands.
Finally, the result might reflect a view that public spending cuts are bad for the sector, which harms the Conservatives because they have talked more openly of reducing expenditure than Labour have done.
Whatever the reason, the finding does raise a couple of important questions.
First, just how in touch are charity employees with the UK as a whole, given the glaring difference between public opinion polls and our survey?
And, if they are out of step with the public, does it matter?
Read more on Why do charities want a fourth term for Labour?…