Douglas Alexander was Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, previously Paisley South, from 1997 to 2015. Between 2001 and 2010, he served as a minister in Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. His first ministerial role was as Minister for e-Commerce and Competitiveness between 2001 and 2002, before becoming Cabinet Office Minister between 2002 and 2003. He then served as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, alongside his Cabinet Office Minister role, from 2003 to 2004, followed by a year as both a Foreign Office Minister and Trade Minister between 2004 and 2005. Following Labour’s re-election in 2005, he served as Minister for Europe until 2006 when he was promoted to the Cabinet to serve jointly as both Secretary of State for Transport and Secretary of State for Scotland. Between 2007 and 2010, during Gordon Brown’s premiership, he served as Secretary of State for International Development. He is Labour’s parliamentary candidate for East Lothian in the next general election.

Tim Lamden (TL): So, Douglas, you spent nearly a decade working as a minister in government across a variety of major departments. Looking back on your time, do you feel the charity sector/civil society was treated as an equal to the state and to business in the policymaking process? And if not, why do you think this was?

Douglas Alexander (DA): I think it was certainly treated as a valued partner, interlocutor, source of expertise and capability. I'm not sure I would instinctively use the term 'equal', given the charitable sector and government have different distinct and, in many ways, complementary responsibilities. So, there would be individual organisations you would deal with - some of the larger charities with a lot of capability and knowledge of the policymaking environment. But, equally, you would often, whether at a local level or at national level, encounter charities and organisations who had really vital practical experience and insight about the impact of policies that, in turn, weighed heavily in decision-making.

TL: Sure, I think what I was getting at is that there is a feeling in the sector and beyond that business carries more weight a lot of the time when it comes to getting its foot in the door in government. That was part of our work on the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, to say: we feel the sector should be on more of an equal footing with, for instance, business.

DA: I certainly think it's vital, in terms of not just the economy, but society, that the third sector and charitable organisations have their place around the table and within the conversations. Engagement by business really varies across government. Some of the larger organisations that have dealt with government for a long time are very familiar both with Whitehall, with the policymaking process, and are not shy in offering their point of view. Equally, I quite often encountered businesses for whom getting a slot in the minister's diary seemed to be the end of the process, rather than the beginning of the process. And you would sometimes close the door after the business representatives had left the room and turn to your private secretary and say, "What was that about? What were they wanting to discuss?" I was, at times, underwhelmed by businesses' capacity to understand how to engage directly with ministers. On the other hand, there were some really very effective corporate leaders at the time. So, it was a very mixed picture. And I would say the same in relation to charities. There were some charities that were incredibly effective at understanding the dilemmas and challenges that government was facing, and offering their perspective with authenticity of experience and real expertise. And there were other organisations that were less effective in putting forward that point of view.

TL: Social responsibility is obviously now a central expectation and measure of businesses in this country and around the world. Looking back on your time in government, do you remember there being an appetite among business for collaboration with civil society and voluntary organisations back then?

DA: Yes, in that many years ago, I was the minister responsible for corporate social responsibility. And, if you like, since that period, which would be back in 2001/2002, I think we've seen quite a significant shift in the way business thinks about corporate social responsibility. When I was minister responsible for CSR, there was still, if you like, a mindset that CSR was about how businesses give money away. And I would argue that in the years since then, that's given way in many ways to what I think is a better approach for business, which is to see CSR as being inextricably bound up with how they make money, rather than their core business process being unaffected by corporate social responsibility, but there being a philanthropic foundation or arm to the business. And in that sense, I think that the reach and understanding of CSR has grown and developed significantly in the last couple of decades. I still think sometimes, though, there are challenges in what you might call 'docking', making sure that the business with the ambition of working effectively with charities understands and is capable of meeting charities where they are, and vice versa. But that's very much an individual case-by-case basis.

" of my learnings from almost a decade in government was how critical both inside government and outside government is the quality of your evidence, it is critical to your credibility when framing government policies."

TL: Thanks for that. During your time as a minister, what was your overall experience of engaging with the voluntary sector? Do you feel there was sufficient engagement, and was it constructive overall?

DA: Broadly, it was very constructive. It varied job by job and, as a consequence, sector by sector within the third sector, or the charitable/not-for-profit sector. As I say, when I was leading on corporate social responsibility, I had a fairly high level of contact at that point with a range of different charitable organisations and hearing their perspectives. When I was in the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office, I probably had less contact directly with charities and NGOs. But then, in my final three years, in that period of government when I was the International Development Secretary, I had very frequent and regular contact with a number of the major development NGOs. And again, that was almost a standing item in the diary, but there would be regular contact hearing their perspectives. There are some very significant international development charities that have a big presence in the UK, as well as internationally, and therefore they were useful thought partners, helpful in lending their perspectives to particular challenges or crises that were emerging around the world, and I worked regularly with them.

TL: What was your assessment of the quality of evidence provided by the sector, when it came to measuring its impact and making its case for support?

DA: Again, a bit of a parson's egg, some very good and some not so good. If you take the example of the international development sector, there were some organisations with very strong evidence to substantiate their advocacy and their requests. And, frankly, there were some that you felt had spent more on their marketing and their campaigning than their policy development and evidence base for that policy development. And one of my learnings from almost a decade in government was how critical both inside government and outside government is the quality of your evidence, it is critical to your credibility when framing government policies. And so, you would be able to judge relatively quickly, when dealing with these organisations, those who had that body of evidence and a capacity to utilise that evidence in a way that was impactful in thinking around policy.

TL: You spent a year as Secretary of State for Scotland, not to mention obviously being Scottish and a Scottish MP. Did you find discernible differences between the role of the voluntary sector in policymaking in Scotland and its role in UK government policymaking?

DA: Well, I was Secretary of State for Scotland, but I was still a member of the UK government, and that was in a period after many of us had campaigned and then voted for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish government that is reflective of that parliament. So, by the time I was Secretary of State, Scottish charities and third sector organisations were dealing both with the UK government and the Scottish government. So, if you like, their direct engagement with government reflected that duality in a way that, at that time, there were many organisations based in England that still saw their primary relationship as with the UK government. So, it didn't significantly alter the dialogue that I would have with these organisations in Scotland, in terms of how they approached the UK government, but it was supplemented, in the case of those Scottish-based organisations, by a strong and frequent dialogue with Scottish parliamentarians and the Scottish government.

"I think the UK is blessed by a long, deep and broad network of civil society organisations, and a very broad recognition across the political divide as to the inherent worth and value of the civil society contribution to our society and our economy."

TL: Yeah, I think what I was getting at was, do you feel that the Scottish government is more engaged with its sector, on the whole, than perhaps the UK government? Having interviewed Peter Hain, he said he felt that in the devolved governments - definitely in Wales - there was far greater engagement. I wondered if that was the same in Scotland?

DA: Yeah, I think in Scotland there is a high level of engagement. I don't think it's particularly complicated why. For one thing, the Scottish government is a lot closer to a lot of these organisations physically and so the ability to meet with government ministers, or civil servants, in Edinburgh has the virtue of greater accessibility. And in that sense, I'm not sure that it reflected a different attitude, I think it may just simply have reflected a different geography.

TL: You mentioned your time as International Development Secretary, three years between 2007 and 2010, so you obviously have significant international perspective. How do you feel the UK compares internationally when it comes to the importance placed on the role of civil society in good government and policymaking?

DA: I think the UK is blessed by a long, deep and broad network of civil society organisations, and a very broad recognition across the political divide as to the inherent worth and value of the civil society contribution to our society and our economy. If I was to draw distinctions, I was very struck, when I spent time in the United States, how deep are the pools of knowledge within the think tank community in the United States, by comparison with even London, where there are a number of significant and effective think tanks, but just not as many of them. And, in that sense, I think that the depth of the ecology of think tanks through which civil society organisations express their view to government was probably amplified in other countries, particularly the United States, I recollect. But equally, there were many countries that I travelled in during my time, not least as Development Secretary, where you were very conscious how fortunate we were in the UK to have the depth, sophistication and maturity of those relationships between civil society and the UK government.

TL: Can you give one example from your time in government that you feel best illustrates what can be achieved when policymakers and civil society work well together?

DA: I think, actually, I would choose a government policy that, although I was supportive of, I didn't have direct ministerial responsibility for, which would be the effectiveness of the campaigning around the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005, around Gleneagles, where there was a highly generative, positive relationship between civil society campaigning organisations and a government that wanted to do the right thing, but needed public support to go further and faster. And, in that sense, I look back on that era as being an example of where both the politicians and the campaigners got it right in building a broad platform of public support for government action against a defined timetable with a specific and clear set of policy objectives. If I look back on my time in government, that was an example of very effective campaigning by civil society organisations.

TL: Conversely, can you think of an example from your ministerial career which exemplifies the challenges and obstacles that can get in the way of effective working between policymakers and civil society?

DA: Um, I think from my own time in the development brief, there were occasions where sometimes the organisations didn't get below the headline, and change in government - not least working collaboratively with other governments to affect change - resides in the detail, rather than in the grand gesture. So if I think, for example, about the efforts I was making at the time I was the British Governor to the World Bank to achieve fundamental reform within the World Bank, I would quite regularly meet organisations who asserted the need for the World Bank to change, I would less frequently meet organisations that could be effective thought partners in identifying the necessary sequence of steps, the range of options in terms of that change and, as I said, there was sometimes a disparity between the headline and the detail that was disappointing, given the scale of the opportunity for change and reform.

"...there were occasions where sometimes the organisations didn't get below the headline, and change in government - not least working collaboratively with other governments to affect change - resides in the detail, rather than in the grand gesture."

TL: So you feel, sometimes, some of the civil society organisations you encountered were more occupied with what they felt about the Bank, rather than actually trying to work out how they could affect change?

DA: I think I was just struck by how few of the organisations actually had the policy capacity to do the detailed work to match the ambition that they were articulating publicly. And, of course, in government, we've got the Civil Service and a lot of expertise. But as I say, if you contrast that, for example, with the think tank community in the United States, I was often struck encountering them by the sheer depth and detail of their recommendations and expertise when it came to seeking change within the multilateral system.

TL: What importance do you place on the ability of civil society to campaign, beyond service delivery and the day-to-day functions of a charity? How important do you feel it is that charities are able to be political and campaign?

DA: I think charities are rightly and appropriately regulated, because they hold a trusted place within our society, but their capacity to shape, influence and mobilise public opinion historically has been very important, and is one of the attributes that's marked British civil society over many decades. And, in that sense, as I say, I reflect on something like the Make Poverty History campaign as an archetypal example of where, entirely consistent with their charitable obligations, a wide range of charities did some really powerful and important work, that helped materially to contribute towards the goals that they were founded to establish.

TL: So, looking back, how would you summarise the approach and attitude of Tony Blair's government towards civil society? There's three parts to this question. Did the approach differ at all under Gordon Brown? And how do you think the governments that have followed compare?

DA: I would say rather than there being a very different approach by government, the Blair and Brown governments governed in economically very different circumstances. So, essentially, from 2007 to 2010, the Brown government, of which I was part, was governing in the shadow of the financial crisis and the significant change that brought both to people's economic outlook and political outlook as well. In contrast, the Blair government between 1997 and 2007 was operating in a more economically benign environment and that shaped and affected British politics in lots of different ways. So I think if there were differences, and it wouldn't strike me immediately that those differences were very significant, it probably reflects the context, more than the commitment. I think after 2010, with David Cameron's Coalition government being elected partly on the Conservatives' manifesto commitment to the Big Society, there was a rhetorical interest in the charitable sector in the UK, but a weight of expectation placed upon them, in the context of austerity and public service cuts, that was unrealistic and ultimately contained the seeds of the demise of the Big Society. I think, if you like, the Blair and Brown governments got on with the job of working effectively with the charitable sector. Whereas, the Big Society promised a lot and delivered much less in relation to the charitable sector. But again, that period of austerity reflects the extent to which government happens in the context of the time and, in that sense, I think the approach to civil society always reflects the broader economic and political outlook for the country at the time.

TL: Do you feel that the sector has been damaged by successive governments since 2010?

DA: My sense is this is still a vibrant, dynamic and vital sector. But, at times, it's been asked to pick up the pieces of a country characterised by a toxic combination of low growth and high inequality. And the expectations on charities at a national and at a local level have reflected not just an economy, but a society, that's been under very severe strain for a number of years.

"I reflect on something like the Make Poverty History campaign as an archetypal example of where, entirely consistent with their charitable obligations, a wide range of charities did some really powerful and important work, that helped materially to contribute towards the goals that they were founded to establish."

TL: And so finally, Douglas, over the course of your time in government, aside from the example you've already given, what was the most inspiring charity or civil society initiative you encountered and why?

DA: Um, I don't want to sound like a broken record, but probably the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005. It combined idealism, public support, policy smarts, and a deep understanding as to how powerful charities and civil society organisations working with government can be. And in that sense, you know, almost 20 years on, it remains a very inspiring example of where a range of civil society organisations got it right.

TL: Can you think of one particular charity that really stuck with you because of its work, or your engagement with a particular organisation?

DA: Honestly, I met and encountered so many different organisations that did inspiring work, it feels invidious to call out one. You could think of the work that the HALO Trust was doing in mine clearance in Afghanistan, you could think of the extraordinary work domestically in recent years that's been done in relation to food banks by the Trussell Trust. Both at home and abroad, we have extraordinary organisations doing extraordinary work. The task of government is to improve the conditions in which those charities are doing their work. And the task of charities is to work hard to understand both the constraints, as well as the opportunities, of working effectively with government.