Big ben

Party conferences, fringes, and the charity sector

By Dan Corry 22 October 2015

The political circus that is our Party Conferences is done for another year.

It was a lively conference season. The Conservative sojourn in Manchester saw spitting and ‘Tory scum’ shouts outside; Boris versus George on the platform; and some clear and fierce debates on the fringe about whether to occupy the centre or get on quickly with a right wing agenda.

At the Labour conference in Brighton, Corbynistas and the newly titled ‘moderates’ used code to express their dislike of each other. If you mentioned achievements of the last Labour government, you were anti-; if you were pro- you talked about having your party back, and about all the non-voters just waiting to embrace this radical campaigner.

But in the bars and corridors of the various conference centres the charity sector was trying to work out where it now stands. And it was not at all easy to establish.

Labour and the charity sector

I went to a fringe meeting down in sunny Brighton where the Corbynite mood was definitely that outsourcing service delivery to charities was not much better than outsourcing to the dreaded private sector. It was presented as a way of undermining quality and wages, and of hollowing out the state. On the other hand, I spoke at a fringe meeting—which NPC helped organise with our friends at ACEVO—that saw terrifically pro-charity speeches from former Cabinet Minister Hazel Blears, interim Greater Manchester mayor Tony Lloyd and impressive new MP (and Simon Hughes slayer) Neil Coyle. They all acknowledged what the sector offers the country and were worried about the recent press and political attacks upon it.

The Tory take

The following weekend in (surprisingly sunny) Manchester, I attended a fine fringe meeting with new Tory MP Suella Fernandes. She talked glowingly about the need to push back the state to let the Big Society flourish and take over. But she then rather undermined this case with an attack on the sector for questionable fundraising tactics, campaigning, and getting too reliant on government. During our event with ACEVO, however, there was a lot of serious discussion about how charities can further their health and care contributions, and the challenges in allowing them to do so.

Charities in the political world

So what do we make of it all?

Firstly, charities feel that it’s worthwhile being at the party conferences. They clearly do want to be seen as part of the policy and politics world. Perhaps some of them are now a bit clearer as to why they are there (I have previously asked why many charities go to party conferences with no real objectives).

Secondly, politicians themselves still seem to like being associated with, and talking to, charities. That’s good, especially so in the slightly more informal world of party conferences, where the guarding civil servants are out of the way. Charities of course will have to be careful that some of the new laws under the lobbying act don’t start to make this communication difficult.

Thirdly, though, the political classes seem to be a bit ambivalent about the sector. In the eyes of some, amid fundraising scandals, big public sector contracts and the whole Kids Company debacle, large chunks of the sector have been delegitimised. Much preferred are the local, ‘salt of the earth’ community charities, often for many good reasons but—dare I say—also because they rarely threaten the positions of politicians.

The charity and voluntary sector itself is having a bit of a rethink. Involvement in party conferences is a tactic of being on the ‘inside’ with politicians and officials, rather than organising on the ‘outside’ (the outsiders’ approach being neatly illustrated by the various demonstrations at all the conferences). Getting the government or opposition to amend their policy a bit in your favour is the prize of the insider approach.

But while the inside track appears to work when you think the broad thrust of policy is going your way, it can seem pointless at other times. So environmental groups who played the game for the last decade and a half at least are now wondering whether the inside game gets them anywhere. And welfare charities are not sure that a tweak to the Work Program or the Work Capability Assessment is really worth it if policy overall is hurting their cause.

The Conservatives are in power for the next 5 years with fixed ideas in a lot of areas and the majority that allows them to push them through. Labour is going to have turbulent times while it sorts itself out—so it may not even be clear who charities should be talking to. Exactly what all this means for the sector’s interaction with politicians is unclear. Either way, charities need to define themselves a bit better within the political world or they will get defined by others in ways they don’t like.