April/May Cover Story: Decision time

They might not agree on much, but on this much Gordon Brown and David Cameron are united: This is a "big choice" election - the biggest in a generation, if the Prime Minister is to be believed.

Certainly for charities it's a tough one, but perhaps for different reasons. After all, the question for them is, would they be better off with recognition of their crucial work in serving communities and an even greater role in public service delivery under Labour; or should they be hoping to be seen as a cornerstone of society, playing a huge role in public service provision with the Conservatives? Or is it the other way around?

The Liberal Democrat's meanwhile promise to respect charities ability to help hard to reach groups - and believe the sector can and should play a much greater role in public services.

As chief executive of Acevo Stephen Bubb says, there's infinitely more talk about the charity sector than there was in the last landmark election in 1997, and that's a cause for celebration. However, it's not always easy to spot the difference in what's being said.

"The rhetoric is certainly very similar," Bubb notes.

All of which makes it hard to account for the recent survey by nfpSynergy showing such a marked preference for a Labour Government. Among charity workers, Labour enjoyed a huge lead on the question of the best result for charities, with 42 per cent opting to see the current government returned. The Conservatives only garnered 13 per cent, behind the Lib Dems on 18.

The poll was picked up on by both of the biggest parties' grass roots blogs: Labourlist and Conservative Home. The Tories' verdict: "Voluntary sector dominated by Labour and Liberal Democrat sympathisers."

Polls apart?
Of course, the political parties insist there are differences between them, and indeed some policies are peculiar to each. Think of the Conservative's pledge to go beyond full cost recovery and allow charities to make a "profit" on public sector contracts, for example, or its commitment to abolish the Big Lottery Fund.

However, there are as many issues they agree on, such as the development of a wholesale investment bank and the reform of Gift Aid, and when it comes to fundamental approaches to the sector the arguments focus more on delivery than principle.

Take Conservative parliamentary candidate for Yeovil and chief executive of charity the Centre for Accessible Environments, Kevin Davis, for example. What marks out his party's policy, he says is five big ideas. One is its idea on full cost recovery; another is the creation of "social enterprise zones".

The remainder, though, all sound fairly familiar: "a one-stop shop" for government contracts (which brings to mind Labour's drive on grants); sorting out CRB checks (again long a promise of Labour); and what he calls "a massive opportunity to get involved and start winning contracts the sector has never won before". Yes, these are things Labour has often promised, admits Davis.The difference is that the Conservatives would deliver. The Liberal Democrats offer a similar argument (explored further on page 27 of the magazine).

Criticism of the Tories from Tom Levitt, Labour MP for High Peak and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Community and Voluntary Sector, is similarly nebulous: "There is a difference between working together in a partnership in a strategic framework and pushing the sector off to deliver services on its own, which is the Tories' approach," he says. More concretely, he argues the Conservatives don't seem to like big charities and are against campaigning.

For these at least, it's easy enough to find the evidence. Former leader Iain Duncan Smith's think tank The Centre for Social Justice, for example, clearly favours the work of small charities, and much of its thinking on "Broken Britain" has found its way into party rhetoric. Likewise, you only have to look to Oliver Letwin, the party's manifesto author, for criticism of campaigning: earlier this year he complained that too much of charities' efforts went into it.

However, as Joe Saxton at nfpSynergy points out, it's harder to see these tendencies in official policy. Neither Letwin nor Iain Duncan Smith is Shadow Charities Minister.
"One of the problems of these excited times is that if anyone blows their nose, people jump to conclusions even if they're not a spokesperson," says Saxton. "There is a real danger we read things in where I am not sure they exist."

In fact, Bubb reckons that as the Conservatives have moved closer to potentially taking office, the differences with Labour have narrowed further.

For example, they now say they will keep the Office of the Third Sector - no doubt a reflection of the fact there will be more pressing issues should they get in (which again is likely to minimise any changes).

When it comes to public service delivery, meanwhile, any tendency to prefer smaller charities is likely to be tempered by the reality that if you want to build up the scale of provision by the third sector, it means working with large organisations, he reckons.

Still, there is some difference in what we may see from the Conservatives, Bubb argues: "I think both Labour and the Conservatives are committed to more delivery through the third sector. I just think the Tories will drive it faster."

And, in fact, Nick Hurd, who is the shadow charities minister, concedes there's fair common ground, even if he still insists the Conservatives have a clear agenda to distinguish them: "There are differences, but from the perspective of the sector the most important thing is the political consensus that has formed over the importance of the third sector and the need for government to support it." And on campaigning? "We have no plans to change current guidance or regulation."

Personal preference
That really leaves three possibilities for the sector's apparent ambivalence towards the Tories.

The first is differences in other policy areas that impact on charities. Here again, though, it's not that easy to find distinctions that would heavily sway charities one way or another. On overseas aid, for instance, both parties are committed to doubling it. Arts funding: The right-leaning Spectator recently noted there was "barely a cigarette paper" between the parties' approaches. Welfare to work: the biggest impact the Shaw Trust (the sector's largest provider) expects to see is tightening belts - whoever wins. Both the big parties will be looking for new approaches, and both are committed to the third sector at a local level, says chief executive Sally Burton: "They're just using some different language around that."

Likewise at Sue Ryder Care, Dan Beety says the big issues in social care in the run up the election have been the reform of funding and discussion around personalisation of services and local accountability. On both there is not a lot to distinguish between what the parties are saying. However, as he warns: "The devil will be in the detail. There's an element of suck it and see."

And that's an important point. With Labour, the sector knows what it's getting. As Anne Blackmore, head of campaigns at NCVO, says, charities know the Labour party's approach to the sector because it has been working with them for the last 13 years. "We know what their expectations for the sector's role are, and how it plays out. At the moment charities are still trying to work out what the rhetoric from the Conservatives would mean in practice." If there is a preference for Labour, part of it could be down to a simple instinct: Better the devil you know.

The third possibility, though, is that there are simply more Labour supporters in charities, and it's personal preference that is colouring the views of what's best for the sector. That, in fact, is what Saxton reckons is behind much of the result (together with the fact that some still remember the 1980s and 1990s when the Conservatives were not so interested in the sector).

"It's probably the case that most people who work in this sector are, crudely put, left wing," he says. "They're more likely to vote Labour or Lib Dem than Tory."

Trouble ahead?
Assuming it's true, though, does it matter? Probably not, reckons Saxton, who doesn't foresee charities making an issue of it in their work with government. "Most people in this sector are pretty good at working out sooner or later on which side of their bread is buttered on and will adapt," he says.

There's good evidence for that, because, in fact, whatever staff's personal politics, charities are already effectively working under Conservative rule across the country - at a local level, where most councils are Tory-led. As Blackmore puts it: "Large swathes of the sector only work locally, and at that level it's a Conservative landscape." The real question then is not whether charities can be trusted to work effectively with a government it might not fully support, but whether governments can be trusted to work with those they suspect of opposing them.

Again, though, most reckon it's unlikely to cause too many problems. Stonewall, for instance, and its chief executive Ben Summerskill in particular, have in the past attracted the ire of Conservative activists.

As Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home, put it following a critical article by the former Labour councillor: "One of the problems any Conservative government will inherit is that the British establishment is stuffed full of partisan Labour-ites like Mr Summerskill who are readier to play politics than advance the cause for which they were ostensibly appointed." Another post called for the Conservatives to strip the party of its funding.

Summerskill, though, is unfazed, and not just because he considers the accusation groundless; the charity also gets very little of its funding from the government. "It really was completely fatuous," he says.

On the other side, however, unemployment charity Tomorrow's People gets about three quarters of its funding from the state. So does Debbie Scott, its chief executive who recently accepted a nomination to become a Tory peer, worry that funding would be at risk should Labour be returned? "It's never crossed my mind," she says. "It would be very petty wouldn't it."

However, that's not to say there aren't dangers. Bubb says the risk of government using funding to favour or punish groups according to perceptions of bias is something to keep an eye on. "The independence of our sector is pretty important," he insists.

Not everyone, though, thinks that's realistic. Ben Farrugia, a former a senior policy analyst at the Tax Payers Alliance - itself no stranger to accusations of bias (see also page 37 of the magazine), says all governments, to an extent, direct funding to groups that are sympathetic. In fact, he predicts Conservative enthusiasm for campaigning may grow with time because of this.

"If the Conservatives get in power I think they will be less worried about the implications of campaigning once more right leaning charities are receiving public funds and getting involved," he says.

Similarly, he argues, some charities will inevitably lose out: The left-leaning think tank The New Economics Foundation, "is never, ever going to receive money when a Conservative government is in power", he maintains. "Let's not pretend."

True or not (and NEF would argue not), it is certainly the case that whatever government gets in, there are bound to be winners and losers; you just won't find them detailed in the manifestos.

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