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March 15, 2005

New Labour and the Voluntary Sector

Posted by Frank Prochaska

In its rhetoric, New Labour has been very enthusiastic towards the voluntary sector - just as the Thatcher government embraced the voluntary sector in the name of liberty and enterprise, New Labour has in the name of community renewal and contributory citizenship. Frank Prochaska - Lecturer in History at Yale University and leading historian of British philanthropy - argues, just as he has previously argued in relation to the Thatcher government, that New Labour has not lived up to its rhetoric.

New Labour has further increased the regulation of charities and the reliance of the charitable sector upon the state for funding. This has further undermined the independence of the charitable sector, an independence which is the very essence of charity. The Charities Bill currently before parliament will reinforce these trends. New Labour's policies towards the charitable sector are symptomatic of its failure to properly understand the charitable tradition. Decentralisation is at the core of the charitable ethos; centralisation is at the core of the New Labour project.

In the 1990s, the leaders of the Labour Party, reeling from Thatcherism at home and the collapse of socialism abroad, felt obliged to distance themselves from their collectivist past. The public had grown chary of calls to socialist ardour, and notions of community and civil society offered Labour an opportunity to build a new constituency. Notably in 1994 Tony Blair said [Independent, 3 November, 1994]:

It is by casting aside the rigid dogmas of the past, that we begin to see a new and exciting role for the voluntary sector - not an optional extra but a vital part of our economy, helping to achieve many of our key social objectives.
In 1998, the Prime Minister pronounced that it was "the grievous 20th century error of the fundamentalist left" to suppose that the state could replace civil society and advance freedom [Quoted in Brian Harrison, 'Civil Society by Accident? Paradoxes of Voluntarism and Pluralism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries', Civil Society in British History: Ideas, Identities, Institutions, ed. Jose Harris (Oxford, 2003), p. 79]. In 2001, the Chancellor Gordon Brown, who had once decried charity as "a sad and seedy competition for public pity" [The Times, 3 May, 1988], launched a campaign to reinvigorate charitable service and civic spirit, saying [The Times, 11 January, 2001]:
Politicians once thought the man in Whitehall knew best. Now we understand that the . . . mother from the playgroup . . . might know better.
Old Labour need not have worried, for he didn't really mean it!

Having abandoned Clause 4 socialism, New Labour was promoting an agenda that echoed the 'new liberalism' of the Edwardian era with its heady mix of Lib/Lab traditions. Nor was there much difference between Blair's enthusiasm for voluntary sector expansion, couched in the rhetoric of community renewal and contributory citizenship, and Mrs Thatcher's support for voluntary endeavour on the grounds of liberty and enterprise.

By the early 1990s, all the political parties seemed to have rediscovered the intermediary institutions of 'civil society', which in the language of the day counterbalanced the atomizing effects of both the state and the marketplace. In the new 'civic socialism' as in 'civic conservatism', charity and self-help were coming back into fashion after decades in the wilderness. In the hope of rebuilding communities, Labour was now investing in 'social capital', which, according to Blair, was "the magic ingredient that makes all the difference" [Quoted in Jeremy Kendall, The Voluntary Sector: Comparative perspectives in the UK (London and New York, 2003), p. 128].

The transformation in New Labour thinking about voluntary provision was a remarkable adjustment to political reality and a tribute to Blair's ideological openness. But we should not take it at face value, any more than we should Mrs Thatcher's endorsement of Victorian values, which diverted attention from the greater centralization of power taking place during her tenure as Prime Minister [see Frank Prochaska, Mrs Thatcher, the Voluntary Sector and Victorian Values, 2005]. To Blair, like Thatcher, the state would be [Independent, 21 September, 1998, review section]:

an enabling force, protecting effective communities and voluntary organisations.
But like all post-war Prime Ministers, he has difficulty thinking outside the world of ministerial power; thus he sees voluntary institutions as agencies that can be enlisted to do the government's bidding, not as expressions of local democracy in their own right. New Labour believes the strength of the voluntary sector lies in its diversity, its sensitivity to local needs and its cost effectiveness. In 2001, David Blunkett argued that government and voluntarism were not in opposition [Quoted in Kendall, p. 129]:
the legitimacy of public institutions and the vitality of civil association seem to improve and decline in tandem.
Such a statement was a far cry from the days when Labour dismissed charitable campaigners as bourgeois busybodies.

In the New Labour 'Vision of Britain', as Blair put it, there was to be [Tony Blair, 'My Vision of Britain', The Observer, Comment Extra, 10 November 2002]:

a bigger role for the voluntary sector, in framing and delivering local services.
Service delivery, it would seem, is the principal virtue of voluntarism in Labour thinking. Given its historic association with the welfare state, Blair and his colleagues still assume that government must shoulder a primary responsibility for community needs. Thus state funding of charitable bodies, which had increased to 45 per cent of all voluntary income by 1995, continues to rise [Kendall, p. 25]. But as the financial contribution of government increases, the relative importance of private giving declines. This raises questions about autonomy, charitable objectives and the future of civic democracy that have been much discussed, though not resolved. The appetite for government funding has become so great that it is now being asked whether charitable societies are being "muzzled by contract and neutered by subsidy"? [See Robert Whelan, Involuntary Action: How Voluntary is the 'Voluntary' Sector? (London, IEA Health and Welfare Unit, 1999)]. As a former charitable official once put it, "no one is rude to his rich uncle".

From the government's point of view the issue of whether voluntary societies remain voluntary is secondary. While they admire charitable provision for its flexibility and cost effectiveness, politicians and civil servants do not prize charitable autonomy. When they talk about democracy they are not talking about a democracy in which independent institutions are encouraged to criticize government policy. Labour, with its eye on the results of partnership, sees little discrepancy between the aims of the voluntary sector and the aims of government. But when David Blunkett says that charity and government are not in opposition, he is being forgetful of the past, in the manner of politicians with a fresh agenda. New Labour insists that it values local democracy, but fails to acknowledge that the independent stance from voluntary institutions is a check on the standardizing tendencies of the state. The party of Nye Bevan continues to have difficulty recognizing that the interests of the state and of society are not always identical.

As it has often been pointed out, the essence of charity lies in its independence - it is the antithesis of collective or statutory authority [see, for example, Francis Gladstone, Voluntary Action in a Changing World (London, 1979), pp. 3-4]. Government provision depends on compulsory taxation; it is not altruistic but materialist in conception. It is largely about furthering equality. Charitable provision, on the other hand, cannot be extracted by force; its proponents have usually been driven by a liberal polity that is primarily individualist, even though it may also be egalitarian. Distinctions between charity and government action are thus deeply rooted, and the merging of the two sectors through state regulation and financial control is bound to raise serious questions.

The fundamental shift to state provision over the past century has dramatically changed the balance of responsibility for social services. Partnership with the state has rescued the voluntary sector from life on the periphery of social policy. Indeed, it is largely state funding that has sustained the charitable revival in recent decades. But the more government stumps up, the more it expects in return. As a consequence the boundaries between the state and voluntary bodies have become increasingly blurred and the issue of charitable independence has become more pressing.

In this matter, the recently published Charities Bill, which is likely to reach the statute book this year, is of some moment [House of Lords, Charities Bill (HL), Session 2004-2005]. To an historian, it is of interest for its underlying assumptions, which reflect the shift towards an ever-greater centralization of state power in Britain since the war. Now we even have a minister for the voluntary sector, which to a Victorian would seem a contradiction in terms. Arguably, some change in the law was in order to ensure public confidence, though public support for charity was never higher than in the nineteenth century when there was little government regulation. All governments and their bureaucracies, whether consciously or unconsciously, seek to regulate and co-opt rival sources of authority. The Charities Bill, which seeks to provide greater accountability for charities through regulation, may be seen in this light. In it, much is made of the virtue of 'public benefit', though in Britain's executive democracy the Secretary of State and the Charity Commission now determine what public benefit means.

A principal object of the Charities Bill is to encourage 'diversity' and 'vibrancy' in the voluntary sector. But institutional diversity, for all its merits in a multi-cultural society, is not the same as independence. It is hoped that small, local charities will flower under the new measures, which include making the Charity Commission more transparent and accountable. But the government - and not a few charitable officials - can barely imagine democracy operating outside the parameters of ministerial control. The proponents of the Bill assume that the charitable and government state sectors are most effective when working in partnership. Indeed, this is often the case, despite their disparity in scale, though it sometimes leads to voluntary bodies foregoing criticism of government policies. Just as the will to raise money is the test of whether a voluntary society has any fresh ideas, the will to criticize government is the measure of its independence.

Under New Labour, we are witnessing a further stage in the perfection of the state monolith under the guise of partnership, or what one charitable director calls a "cultural take-over by stealth" [Quoted in Whelan, p. 20]. The use of charities to do the government's bidding may be seen as the elusive 'Third Way', a devolved form of government control that turns the intermediary institutions of civil society into agencies of the state through contracts and financial control [for a discussion of state sponsored voluntarism see Paul Hirst, Associative Democracy: New Forms of Economic and Social Governance (Cambridge, 1994), chapter 6]. This is likely to become increasingly apparent as the percentage of charitable revenue from government sources continues to rise and more and more societies become servants of the state. A few social critics will complain of the damage inflicted on civil society. But as the charities look increasingly to the state for survival, their officials will put a brave face on their acquiescence. For its part the government will applaud its promotion of a sector whose traditions it doesn't fully understand. And all this will be done in the name of charitable revival.

Dr Frank Prochaska is Lecturer in History, Yale University. Dr Prochaska's other essays on philanthropy for the Social Affairs Unit can be found here.

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