Rachel Reeves MP speech at the launch of the Commission on Civil Society
Thank you for those kinds words Gus and thank you Andy for inviting me to share some reflections with you today.
My professional background is in economics, so I’ve spent a fair amount of my working life before becoming an MP staring at spreadsheets and equations, but like so many of you here today, what motivates me is people and how we can ensure a good life for all.
One of the most exciting aspects of the brief I have been given by Keir Starmer when I rejoined the Shadow Cabinet in April is to help Labour develop longer term thinking for a fairer economy and stronger society.
It is impossible to achieve either without understanding the importance of civil society, yet in the political arena this is often overlooked and possibly undervalued as well.
For too long the impression is that the civil society sector is there to either compensate for market failure or to plug holes in the limitations of state. It is often defined more against both the private and public sectors in policy terms rather than on its merits.
Even the phrase ‘not-for-profit’ seems inadequate to explain the purpose of so many organisations large and small, whether they are they are formally or informally delivering services or giving voice to others.
It is not the absence of profit which defines civil society, but at its heart is the full value of people.
How would traditional policy makers classify a young England footballer inspiring and motiving thousands of people, businesses and community projects to provide meals for children during the October half-term when the Government refused?
It’s impossible without talking about our care for those in our communities and we must never shy away from talking about challenging inequalities and injustice.
We cannot begin to understand the power and potential of civil society if we fail to appreciate the desire for dignity, appreciation of kindness, a joy in togetherness, shared determination, silent struggle or the enduring need to be heard and understood.
The value of civil society has been demonstrated time again through the Covid-19 crisis reflecting the very best in people, springing into action to meet urgent demands. That’s what I see in my constituency in Leeds West.
Armley Helping Hands is a community project in my constituency which has been delivering food parcels and prescriptions to vulnerable people throughout this period. They are currently making festive gift hampers for the older and more isolated people in the community and host a ‘listening service,’ where, if you are struggling with your mental health, or just want to chat.
The New Wortley Community Centre has helped provide hot meals in the community to those in greatest need and has worked with local school pupils to write and send letters to people in care homes and shielding. For a society scarred by loneliness before this crisis, you cannot put a value on initiatives like this – yet me must.
After the death of my friend and colleague Jo Cox, I said in Parliament that it falls on all our shoulders to take forward her work. So it was one of the greatest privileges to co-chair the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission alongside former Conservative MP Seema Kennedy. I remarked then that if William Beveridge were alive today, I believe he would identify loneliness as one of his great evils.
In 2017 we knew then that 9 million people in our country regularly experience loneliness. I shudder at what might be the figure today.
Times are incredibly hard for many civil society organisations. Last week the Comprehensive Spending Review and OBR report showed a stark economic picture. Yet I know a rounding error on these lines of expenditure would transform lives through the voluntary and community sector.
Every day on Radio 4 I hear whether the FTSE 100 is up or down, yet we struggle to measure or give prominence to social capital which has much more impact on the lives of the people I represent.
The UK is not just in the middle of an economic recession, we are in a social recession too and have been for some time. A decade of austerity has undermined resilience nationally, within our communities and at home.
Precarious work may provide far greater flexibility for the employer but not for the worker who cannot plan their finances or their life with confidence.
Our social security safety net is torn and support is too often inadequate. Not even a pandemic requiring people to self-isolate has led to the government increasing statutory sick pay – the lowest of any OECD nation -resulting in ill and potentially contagious people still attending work.
We are bombarded with messages of consumption, while our landfill sites are filling and planet is burning. Clean air in city centres can be a luxury.
Technology enables us to rapidly communicate, work and engage throughout the world and bring people together at a fraction of the cost of time and money. Yet it can so easily interrupt and intrude into family life.
Our high streets matter to millions, yet our tax policy and practice rewards clicks over bricks.
But the problems are not limited to the private sphere.
Public contracts are given, without tender to friends of the powerful while so many others are unable to even get to the door, never mind through it.
There will be many working in civil society who know first-hand how hard it is for their organisations to bid for and win public contracts and will be aghast at some of these procurement practices and decisions in the press.
Many institutions are viewed with suspicion and all too often it seems that is resented by government. Ministerial codes of conduct appear to be written in invisible ink.
Decisions are made too far away from people and their communities. England is one of the most centralised countries and it is not healthy. The way the government approached the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s requests for economic support only reinforced these perceptions. It was one of the rare times of cross-Pennine solidarity from the people of Leeds. But it is deeper than this.
Many of you instinctively know participation is as important as representation. That is why Labour’s ambition for devolution must not be limited to elected politicians back to empowering communities as well.
The last Labour government tried this especially in some of the most economically disadvantaged areas in creating space and resources for civil society to make change in regeneration – a word you don’t hear much about anymore. This has to be revisited and revised for future challenges and opportunities
This is a big week for our country. There are only thirty days until the end of the transition period with the European Union – but what are we transitioning to?
The message to ‘take back control’ struck such a chord when so much of modern life can feel chaotic, pressured and unsatisfactory.
Whichever way people voted in 2016, there is a shared desire for something better. The UK government doesn’t just need a trade deal with the European Union, it desperately needs a civic deal with the people of the UK too.
There is a challenge for the Labour Party too to respond to this social recession. To be an ally for civil society and an enabling force for change.
Our party and movement are built on the voluntarism of trade unions and co-operative movement, yet with our recent history our ideas have at times been overly statist, our language bureaucratic or before that consumerist. None are adequate for the times we are in.
Under Keir Starmer’s leadership that is changing. Our party will be talking more about the everyday concerns of people, emphasising the importance of our communities and the places we make our home.
Relationships matter and I want to see more policy designed in future with the express aim of bringing people together. But nor can we ignore the emergency facing so many organisations right now.
Our Shadow Minister for the Voluntary and Community Sector Rachael Maskell has highlighted how the current crisis made worse by Covid-19.
The collapse in fundraising and insufficient financial support for the sector from government tragically means viable charities and community organisations risk going to the wall at the time when demand is highest. That is why Labour thinks that the sector needs a financial bail-out, but this is just the start.
We believe we need to reset the relationship between the civil society sector and the public sector so that it is a partnership of equals. Labour wants charities and community organisations to play their full role in changing society.
Democracy is deeper than sporadic elections, it is about what happens in between with citizens’ voice, rights and power. That requires guarding the independence and voice of civil society and is why measures in the Lobbying Act which mutes so many, really must go.
Your voice is your most important asset and the whole country benefits when voluntary organisations and charities can speak truth to power.
The challenge of rebuilding our society post-Covid will fail without the vital participation of civil society. We need a new era of collaboration and co-production for the common good.
The sector must be around the decision-making tables drawing on your vast experience to help shape the future. That is why the Law Family Commission for Civil Society is so important because it can transform thinking.
Now is the time and the occasion for a civic surge. To put people are the heart of thinking, of creating new solutions and recognising the value of participation and not just outcomes.
When I look at the members of this commission and the aims and purpose, I know you will challenge, interrogate and inspire political parties and among decision-makers from Whitehall to town halls and to the grass roots of all our communities.
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on who we are as a country.
Covid-19 may have shown we are in the same storm, but we certainly are not all are in the same boat.
My constituents living in the 26 tower blocks in Leeds West have had a different experience to those with gardens and space.
The key workers who are the backbone of Britain deserve a pay rise. Our community organisations should be expanding and reasserting the public realm. It is the job of government - locally and nationally to be on their side.
Sadly, so often what is measured, matters. The commission will prove to be an important moment to weighing the true value of civil society. It is time for us all to meeting the new challenges of our age.
This time 160 years ago John Ruskin was writing about what matters during a time of great tumultuous change.
‘There is no wealth but life. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings.’
Ruskin could be writing about today.
I am excited by what this new Commission for Civil Society will mean – for our country and our future and I wish you all well in this crucial endeavour.