Party conferences are new to me. Attending both in two weeks was enlightening – if exhausting.
Some of the warnings proved true: I spent most of my days lost; and the food was undoubtedly better at the Conservative Party Conference.
Other things were surprising: how few ‘questions’ end in a question mark; and how tall Ed Miliband is.
Civil society was out in force, and on the agenda at both conferences—but in different and revealing ways.
On message Labour Party—jubilant but quiet on civil society
The atmosphere in Liverpool was buoyant, with the Labour Party elevated by polls showing increasingly gaping leads. The ‘fairer, greener future’ theme was backed up by new policy commitments to become 100% clean energy dependent by 2030, a real living wage, and a new state-owned energy provider.
On charities we heard a little less. We were grateful to be joined at our own breakfast event on the Tuesday by the Rt Hon Sir Stephen Timms MP and Fleur Anderson MP to discuss how charities can support people back into work. But their commitments to the sector were not always echoed by their colleagues. I couldn’t help noticing that charities featured little in the speeches by front benchers in the conference hall.
This could have been due to strict message discipline in the party, with each Shadow Minister sticking rigidly to their brief and talking points: I heard the same line from at least three front benchers about plans to ‘continue the legacy of New Labour, and finish what they started’ on completely different topics.
Off message Conservative Party—divided but with plenty to say about charities
It’s fair to say the atmosphere at Conservative Party Conference was somewhat more contentious. Officially ‘Growth’ was the theme of the conference, but for those of us in Birmingham it felt that the party’s sight was set firmly inwards. As the U-turn headlines piled up and as former and even current cabinet ministers openly criticised government plans, the sense of division was hard to escape. I overheard one Conservative member remark on the phone: “I’m tempted to buy an ‘In Liz we Truss’ t-shirt—I’m sure it’ll be a novelty collector’s item soon”. After a briefing on the latest polling from Ipsos on Tuesday afternoon another member commented: “We’re being too reactive and not proactive—maybe we need a period in opposition to get some fresh thinking into the party”.
Yet despite all the furore, charities did still receive plenty of attention. These conversations, however, reflected the wider divisions playing out within the party.
On one side, on Sunday night, twelve Conservative MPs from the communitarian wing of the party called for greater investment in civil society. They argued that the social capital which charities build is central to the economic growth that the government is trying to achieve, as they laid out a positive vision of charity and community being core to Conservative values.
On the other, two MPs on Tuesday made headlines by criticising the sector for overreach. Guy Opperman MP told the sector to stop being so political, and advocated the merger of many small research charities, whilst Jerome Mayhew MP criticised large charities who deliver contracts for their ‘socialist outlook’.
What does this mean for charities trying to achieve change?
There’s an important lesson here for civil society. There is support and scepticism of the work charities do from both sides of the political spectrum. Those in the sector who are quietly celebrating that the Labour Party seems to be in the ascendant need to keep two things in mind:
Firstly, we still may not see an election until 2024, or even early 2025. That is two years in a cost-of-living crisis where the people we serve rely on us finding a way to work with those in power to ensure they get support.
Secondly, it’s not always easy to predict who will be the sector’s cheerleaders. Even though no longer in the ascendant, the wing of the Conservative party who are focused on community has been a key route into government for civil society. Although most of these MPs are currently not in cabinet, the position of the government means that backbenchers have much more influence now than the government’s majority would suggest.
This may not always be the case—the balance of power within the Conservatives is delicate and may move quickly, with opportunities to shift policy appearing just as rapidly. Charities who achieve change do so by remaining laser-focused on their mission, and flexible enough to make use of windows of influence wherever they appear along the way.
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