David Ainsworth: Why Rob Wilson is (mostly) wrong about charities

29 Jan 2018 Voices

Rob Wilson, former minister for civil society

Former charities minister Rob Wilson said last week that Oxfam had "disappeared up its own posterior", that grant funding should "dwindle" and that the sector needed to hire more people from the political right. David Ainsworth asks if he's got a point.

Last week the former charities minister, Rob Wilson, launched a polemical attack on large charities in the Daily Telegraph. Big charities, he said, were too left-wing.

He singled out Oxfam, which was so out of touch it had “disappeared up its own, morally righteous, posterior” and gave “every impression of being incapable of evidence-based rational argument about the ongoing success of western economies or capitalism in general”. 

it’s clear he essentially sees the sector as a gang of well-meaning failures who do some good things, but need to be sorted out by the Tory party, so it may not surprise you to discover that I disagree with many of Rob Wilson’s assertions. But I certainly don’t disagree with all of them. His tone may not be helpful, but I'm afraid that in places, he's got a point.

So far as I read it, he says four things.

Oxfam (and others) are too party political

“For an organisation that is required by law to be non-party political,” Wilson writes, “Oxfam gives plenty of ammunition to its critics. It stands accused of being anti-capitalist, anti-wealth and anti-Conservative.”

Wilson is taking aim at Oxfam’s most recent campaign aims to highlight huge wealth disparities across the world.

It’s a campaign which throws up all sorts of challenges for charity campaigning. Is it helpful to send this message? Are Oxfam’s figures really accurate? Are they helping or alienating?

I rather think Oxfam are not anti-capitalist. They’ve been strong advocates of trade, not aid, in many places. But they are opposed to a capitalist system in which wealth always grows faster than income, which is only one type of capitalism.

Oxfam’s assertion that we need a different type of capitalism is a fascinating economic and social question: is a system which creates a lot of wealth but distributes it poorly worse than a system which creates slightly less but distributes it fairly? Is it an either/or? Can’t we have economic growth with engineering to reduce the inequalities?

I’d love to write about this for a long time, but that isn’t what’s at issue here. The question here is whether it’s party political to campaign for a system which leads to low levels of wealth inequality. If that’s party political, it rather suggests that the Tories believe high levels of inequality are a good thing.

Of course, if Oxfam then comes to believe that Conservative policies perpetuate wealth inequality, they should campaign for those policies to change. There is quite a subtle difference between campaigning against specific policies and against a party’s whole worldview, and it’s one where technical truth collides sharply with reality, because it isn’t always going to be obvious if you are politically neutral but happen to think that one party is dead wrong.

The difference is encapsulated Tony Benn's view that some people are signposts, and some are weathercocks. If Oxfam pointed in the opposite direction to the Conseratives no matter what they did, they're party political weathercocks. If Oxfam would keep the same politics if the Tories changed, they aren't.

You can see where the Tories don’t have much patience with this. I think Wilson wrongly conflates being anti-capitalist with being anti-Tory, but he is just giving voice to what a lot of people feel. And let’s face it, the people who work at Oxfam probably don’t care much for the Conservative party, and it does bleed out. Being neutral does not excuse the need to appear neutral, and I think we as a sector need to be careful.

Which leads us onto Wilson’s next assertion.

Charities are too left-wing and need to hire some Tories

Wilson tells charities that they need to hire a few more right-wingers to sort themselves out. He doesn't, to be fair, tell them to hire former Tories, but it feels like the implication. And since charities have previously hired former Labour apparatchiks, you can see where he's aggrieved.

“The leadership of the big charities must stop being so overtly pro left,” he writes. “They must provide balance by hiring new right-leaning people and change their focus.”

Unfortunately, he has a hell of a good point here. Go to this YouGov page and look at the political affiliation of the sector. The needle actually falls off the left of the dial.

It’s hard for a sector to be politically neutral if all the people in it vote for one party.

This isn’t something with an easy solution, though. Charities exist to provide communal resources and to ameliorate disadvantage. Much of the Conservative party ideologically views these as lower priorities. Their view is that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that markets will find their own solutions. The Tories have abandoned charities as much as the other way around.

It's not always true that the two ideologies can't be compatible, by any means. Both charities and Conservatives are very focused on the idea of empowering individuals to do the best for themselves. Both believe incredibly strongly in the value of people coming together to deliver solutions to their problems. And neither tend to buy into the common left-wing view that the state should be the solution of default for social problems.

In any case, once again, the key thing is practicality. If charities want to influence right wing governments, the sector must have messages they can listen to. And if we want messages they can listen to, we need people who understand their thinking.

It’s also a diversity issue, in a sector which is nowhere near as good as it should be at inclusiveness. Tories working in the sector already report that they don’t report their party allegiances for fear of prejudice. Is that really who we want to be?

Charities are for delivering services

Rob Wilson says something else which I largely agree with: “Wherever you look in society, it is rarely the big government departmental programmes that improve people’s lives but charities and social enterprises at local level, who for example know how to help homeless people, sort out the chaos of poor life choices of drug and alcohol users, or reduce re-offending.”

I actually think that removing the systemic chaos of the benefits system is the single most effective lever for dealing with these issues, which is a job for the state. But he’s right that when it comes to providing tailored solutions to hard-to-reach people, charities do better than government.

I don’t agree that this is what charities are for, though. This is only one of many things which charities do. They convene communities, raise issues, and represent individuals. Where they deliver services, they are often additional to and more bespoke than those we need from the state.

I also have practical doubts about another Wilson claim: “charities are needed to deliver the better outcomes at the lower cost the country needs”.

I tend to think that charities probably can deliver a lot of services better than government, but that would only be the case if government itself was capable of sensibly commissioning them to do so – something which is manifestly not the situation today.

The problems of government service delivery are absolutely legion. One is simply that not enough money is spent on them. Another is bureaucracy and waste. A third is a frequent inability to deliver what people actually need. Charities could help, but only if the system itself is fixed.

Which leads us on to the final point.

Contracts are better than grants

“It is charities, social enterprises and co-operatives that should be delivering many of our local public services, not fuelled by grants but contracts,” says Wilson.

Wilson’s philosophy seems to suggest that charities should effectively be agents of the state – there to deliver the change mandated by government, as instructed. But this is not going to work. It betrays a complete lack of trust in the sector. If you expect to tell charities what to do and have them do it better than you would, you are in for a disappointment. The benefit of the sector comes from being outside the state, and able to find different solutions – from being responsive to individuals, not policy objectives.

What this needs is long-term unrestricted grants, often relatively small in value, delivering against outcomes and values, not strict targets.

You can see where the state doesn’t like this. Giving up power is hard, and giving grants is a skill which government agencies tend not to have. But if Wilson wants the results he says he does, that’s the process his party needs to follow.

 

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