Keir Starmer / Flickr

‘A society of service’ — Read Keir Starmer’s speech to the Civil Society Summit in full

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer today delivered a speech to the Civil Society Summit, hosted by Pro Bono Economics, in which he responded to the “divisive” pursuit of culture war politics by the government. Read the address in full below:

Thank you for inviting me here today.

And thank you to Pro Bono Economics, not just for organising this event, but for all your work on the Civil Society Commission driving the conversations on how civil society can thrive in this country.

I must say, it’s quite nice to be among civil society, you don’t get much of that in Westminster.

And it’s great to be here at St John’s Waterloo.

As you probably know, during the Second World War, this church was bombed. This room was totally destroyed. But in the crypt below us, 150 people were hiding, and all of them survived.

Now after the war, it was rebuilt. And a Labour government recognised that this country had to work for the people who had been through so much.

You all know what happened next. They set up the NHS, the welfare state. They transformed this country so it could face the future.

But long before the government was involved, it was people, faith groups, and organisations like you who supported people through sickness, who educated our children and who protected people living in poverty.

Because it has always been people like you who have recognised the dignity of every single person. And that’s the history and heart of the Labour party too. Community organisers, campaigners, and charitable movements, who fought for people to live better lives in a better country.

When the Labour government set up the welfare state, they were influenced by people like William Beveridge who recognised that the government couldn’t – and shouldn’t – do everything by themselves.

And that civil society and faith groups play a unique and vital role in this country, building the relationships and the shared values that shape our national life.

And we’ve seen – and can still see today – what partnership can achieve. Look at Young Futures hubs to support vulnerable teenagers. Free breakfast clubs in primary schools. Speech and language therapy for young people.

These are areas where civil society spoke out, and Labour listened. Because we know it’s people on the ground, people with skin in the game, who understand the problems best and have the best answers. You are the glue that bridges the gaps and binds government, business, and communities together.

You reach into the places that the public and private sectors can’t. Creating the space, literally, for people to come together. In church halls, community centres, museums, leisure centres – you name it – all around the country, as well as creating the space for conversations and campaigns that change lives.

But let’s be honest, for too long, your voice has been ignored between the shouts of the market and the state.

One Conservative Prime Minister said there was ‘no such thing as society.’ And then we watched individualism run rampant.

Cameron talked about the Big Society. A great idea, in principle. But when austerity kicked in, we ended up with the Poor Society.

Now we need a new vision for a new era. A renewed social contract. A new focus on those who build the bonds that connect us, the communities that nurture us, and the local institutions that support us.

A Society of Service.

Because when I look around, 14 years of chaos and crisis have pushed people to the brink, stretched charities like yours beyond their limits and damaged the social fabric that ties us together.

And look, I’m not here to talk about the Tories today.

But I know, over the last 14 years, you’ve carried the burdens of their failure. The Trussell Trust expected to provide more than a million emergency food parcels this winter.

I know that during the pandemic, you saved lives. I think of the vaccination clinics I visited in places of worship.

I know that, during a decade of division, you held communities together, like the neighbourhood groups who knocked on doors during Covid, checking in on people they didn’t even know, just to make sure they were alright.

And instead of seeing this as a model that should inspire us, the Tories seem set on sabotaging civil society to save their own skins.

They’ve got themselves so tangled up in culture wars of their own making, that instead of working with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, an organisation the late Queen was patron of for 70 years, to find real solutions to stop the small boats. Their rhetoric has helped demonise them.

Instead of working with the National Trust so more people can learn about – and celebrate – our culture and our history, they’ve managed to demean their work.

In its desperation to cling onto power at all costs, the Tory Party is undertaking a kind of weird McCarthyism, trying to find woke agendas in the very civic institutions they once regarded with respect.

Let me tell you. Waging a war on the proud spirit of service in this country isn’t leadership. It’s desperate. It’s divisive. It’s damaging.

It comes to something when the Tories are at war with the National Trust. That’s what happens when politics of self-preservation prevail over commitment to service.

People who are getting on with the things that actually matter – saving lives, supporting those in need, serving others – get caught in the crosshairs of division and distraction.

So the relationship between government and civil society needs a reset.

Because you should feel that you can speak up on behalf of the people you serve without fear, call out injustice where you see it, and continue to push us all to be and do better.

And there are two stories of the past 14 years, aren’t there? There’s the story we hear in the news every single day: crisis, cronyism, chaos – a government that has stoked division for its own ends and seen the privilege of service as an opportunity for self-advancement.

And then there is the other story. The story that gives me hope. The story of ordinary people in this country doing what our government hasn’t done. Looking out for each other. Looking after one another.

The story of charities that have met the needs of local people – like Compassion in Action.

I met the founder, Pam, a couple of weeks ago, and she told me how it started. Initially as a foodbank and now as a hub for the local community providing food, accommodation, and training for those who need it.

Everywhere I go, I hear stories of courage, compassion and community. Stories of service that could fill every paper in the country.

But civil society is not just a nice news story in a local paper, something we can feel warm and fluffy about. It’s essential if we’re going to get our economy back on track and achieve the highest sustained growth in the G7.

Look at the thousands of charities across the UK supporting people back into work. The organisations facilitating local regeneration. Or providing more than 6 million volunteering opportunities and employing almost a million people.

And look – you should not have to clean up the mess your government created.

But it is to your credit, and to the credit of this country, that you have always held up your end of the social contract.

So, to those of you in this room, and to the people and organisations across the UK whose work so often goes unsung, I want to say thank you. Thank you for all that you’ve done.

But imagine for a moment. Imagine a government committed to working with people, not doing things to people.

Imagine if we could turn our attention from firefighting every day to the long term renewal this country needs.

That’s our pledge to you: that if we are privileged to be elected to serve this year, we will work with you on our mission for a decade of national renewal.

Every word of that phrase is important.

A decade, because – realistically – that is how long it will take. And civil society knows better than anyone that lasting change takes longer than an election cycle.

National, because this will need every one of us to play our part. Labour will not write off the contribution of civil society. We know that you are often the link between the local and the national.

And finally, renewal, because we don’t just want to tinker with the symptoms of this Government’s failure. We want to tackle the causes so that this country is fit to face the future.

I want today to mark an important milestone towards implementing an action plan on how, together, a future Labour government would work with civil society for a society of service.

Because we will work with you on every single one of Labour’s missions. Getting the NHS back on its feet. Tearing down barriers to opportunity. Growing the economy in all parts of the country. Getting to clean power by 2030. Making our streets safe.

Mission-led government is about partnership. About devolving power to communities. Setting long term targets and working with people to get there. Giving people the responsibility they deserve and the support they need.

We don’t want to crowd out the social entrepreneurs – we want to encourage them.

We want to harness civil society as one of the three key engines for renewal, working alongside the public and private sectors.

Take crime, for example. When I was this country’s chief prosecutor – Director of Public Prosecutions – I fought for a justice system that worked for people. But it isn’t working for anyone under the Tories, is it?

I’ve sat with too many parents who have lost their child to knife crime. I’ve heard too many horrifying tales of domestic abuse from women who never got the justice they deserved.

Later this week I’ll be on the road, talking to people about Labour’s plan to tackle knife crime. Our plan to halve violence against women and girls.

Yes, it’s ambitious. But it’s necessary.

And we know we will need the partnership of organisations on the ground to make this a reality. I’ve delivered on this before. We’ll do it again, together.

With organisations like Wolverhampton Wrestling Club – I’ve been there twice – who mentor vulnerable children and teach them sport. Or Women’s Aid, supporting victims of domestic violence.

My government won’t accept business as usual. We can’t.

Halving violence against women and girls is incredibly difficult. I know that – I worked on this for five years as Chief Prosecutor working with many organisations, including some in this room.

No government or opposition has ever committed to this before. So, we’ll need to work in new ways – and with steely determination.

But we want you to push new ideas on policies that will work for the people of Britain, rather than picking up the pieces of bad policies.

So, on vital issues that will support our missions, like child poverty, we will bring together experts – including people in this room – to look at every cause and contributor to child poverty so we can offer a long term, strategic solution.

This is a politics that focuses on the issues people really care about, not tries to distract people from the problems the government has created.

A politics that brings people together to work for the common good, not seeking to divide and demonise a common enemy.

A politics that serves others.

Because the biggest problem we face is the erosion of trust in politics and politicians. The exhaustion people feel at the daily soap opera the government seems to think our public life should be. We need to restore the foundations of trust, fairness and respect in our national life.

Because politics can influence people’s attitudes. It can encourage us to serve others. To make sacrifices for others. Or it can undermine the sense of community, the commitment to each other that’s at the heart of civil society.

And that’s what I worry we have seen – that people who have made sacrifices, worked hard, played by the rules – feel as though the people in charge have been laughing at them for doing the right thing.

Feel as though people who break the rules and take what they can are rewarded, whilst working people, people doing the right things, get nothing to show for it.

In a society of service, doing the right thing should be rewarded. Working hard should pay off for people. And building caring, compassionate communities should make our country stronger, more prosperous, fairer for everyone.

If you serve others, this country should serve you.

This is a once in a generation chance: a mission-led government, a partnership between government and civil society.

Our door is open. We will welcome anyone who wants to make our national life better to take their place at the table, to shape the future.

And I’ll be frank with you – this isn’t just an invitation. It’s an ask. Because this is an opportunity for hope.

A chance to protect those who are vulnerable, like this building once did.

To rebuild our country, just like this church was rebuilt.

To create a Society of Service for a decade of national renewal.

To get Britain’s future back.

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