Jeremy Corbyn

Winning the Corbyn way

12 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn is the new Labour leader.

Three months ago, writing such a sentence was unthinkable. But Corbyn’s victory first became plausible, then pretty likely, and finally inevitable. By yesterday morning he was 12-1 on to win.

Charity sector wonks will already be thinking about policy implications. When Corbyn opposes private contracts in some public services—most notably the NHS—does that mean Labour will ask just local and national government to deliver work, or will there be room for voluntary sector groups too? Might he pluck some advisers from charities with whom he’s worked?

But the structural questions interest me more. How did Jeremy Corbyn pull this off, and what might the sector learn?

All change, please

Corbyn’s most successful selling-point was his position as the change candidate. His supporters stressed that voters would get a new type of politician rather than more-of-the-same. It’s a powerful message, well-used in politics, and one which charities too could heed.

From one angle, charities stand for something old-fashioned. There’s nothing new about people clubbing together to help the less fortunate, or pressing for changes they feel strongly about. And I’ve blogged before about the risk that the sector appears to lack vitality or, more damagingly, to be drifting out of touch with the concerns of the public.

A new approach is already evident from some. Craig Bennett, newly-installed head of Friends of the Earth, struck a decidedly Corbyn-like tone when he said of his charity: ‘I think we all got too much into a bubble, spent too much time with policy wonks and forgot about people’.

Bennett has a point. It will be enervating if donors and supporters (and beneficiaries) sense that they’ve seen it all before. Charities sometimes talk about innovation more than they actually innovate. It might be time to bring in new ideas—and to shout lots more about the effective innovations already in place.

Fresh blood

Politicians love to talk about ‘engagement’. The jury is out on what exactly Corbyn has achieved: the numbers flocking to his events are very high for political rallies, but outside of this base he remains basically unknown. Nonetheless, he has fired-up people who would otherwise be at home, evidently driven by a desire to help their man into the top job.

In recent days we’ve had a useful reminder of how the charity sector can miss out on new people. The Guardian asked why well-qualified younger women are ignored as trustees; my colleague Andrew Weston wrote eloquently about why charity beneficiaries play a relatively small role at the organisations who help and represent them.

Evidently, there are people with whom charities should engage more but aren’t. Excitement needn’t get the better of us—increased populism in France (on the right) or Greece (on the left) hasn’t obviously strengthened charity sectors elsewhere. But the audience for doing social good may be larger and more dynamic than we recognise. There is food for thought here for voluntary sector groups who want to expand their reach.

Back to the future

Jeremy Corbyn won as the change candidate, but the biggest hit against him is that he won’t, in the end, change anything. If he isn’t electable come 2020, as his detractors argue, then his policies will never actually leave the page.

Which poses charities an intriguing question. Like anyone advocating for beneficiaries or members, they will need to decide where their resources go. The obvious next step is to contact Corbyn’s team and try to feed their priorities into the reviews and working papers which will shortly be under way.

But MPs less enamoured of Corbyn, who claim to represent the more electable wing of the party, are already on manoeuvres with new, informal policy groupings. Will anyone play the long game, and go direct to these groups, so that they are on the ground ready if and when the leadership cycle starts all over again?

It remains to be seen how Corbyn will do, but charities can learn from the issues of leadership that have manifested already, and should continue watch closely.