Should charities campaign? Conservative and Labour party members have their say

13 Oct 2023 Voices

Civil Society asked attendees at the Conservative and Labour party conferences whether charities should campaign...

In the past fortnight, several MPs brought up charity campaigning in keynote speeches and at fringe events at the Labour and Conservative party conferences.

At the Conservative Party conference, home secretary Suella Braverman said: “Each time I have gone to parliament to improve the law on immigration, Labour has tried to block us. Always aided by their allies in the third sector.”

Also at the event, former chair of the Charity Commission chair Baroness Stowell said charities should avoid campaigning on contentious issues.

Meanwhile, at the Labour Party conference, shadow minister for civil society Lilian Greenwood said she respects charities’ right to campaign.

Civil Society asked some of the other delegates at the conferences for their opinions.

Conservatives for Women: Charities should not get ‘special access to government’

A member of Conservatives for Women said: “I think they should campaign. They should not be getting taxpayers’ money to finance the campaigns.

“The sort of things they could do is, for example, wildlife trusts, organising clearing the banks of a river. I mean that kind of activity, that kind of campaigning that makes sense. And that helps everybody. No one’s going to have a problem with that.”

“Also, get people to clean the river. But don’t campaign on contested science. So, environmental charities should be improving the environment, they should not be lobbying government to impoverish everybody by putting green taxes on the people who can’t afford it.”

They added that charities should “not be party political” and that transparency was important.

“There’s been an increased use – and it started under Labour, it continued under Cameron – of getting charities to deliver public services. The transparency there is very iffy. Particularly when those charities then start to lobby because they exist simply to deliver public services at public expense. And then lobbying. That just stinks I think.”

Another said: “They shouldn’t get special access to government. This is what we have seen with Stonewall. They have had unprecedented access to all areas of government and their policies have been sneaked in under the radar with no public debate.

“They should be completely upfront with who’s funding it, and what their end goal is.

“This is our key thing: we want transparency so that everyone can join in the debate. That’s the key thing, things being done behind closed doors is not democracy. Eventually, people find out and then there is a backlash, if they bring people along that is the key.”

LGBT+ Conservatives: ‘There is not a blanket approach to all of them’

Luke Robert Black, chair of the LGBT+ Conservatives, said: “Depending on the issue, there will be different approaches needed to get the point across.

“There are some charities that will have a politically-aligned topic, or certain rights issue or something like that, that they are trying to change. And it will make sense for them sometimes to be political.

“We are definitely very receptive to working with charities, but I think I just want to make sure sometimes that the party is working with charities who are also on the same side as us. 

“And I think there have been times, particularly as we’ve seen with things like Greenpeace, and some more animal-based charities, that are kind of against our message, which can be frustrating sometimes. But I think it is in the Conservative Party’s tradition to work with charities.”

“The Terrence Higgins Trust, for example, works with us, the Conservative Party, and the Labour Party. It probably does not make too much sense for them to be too overtly political. But that might be different for other groups as well.

“Recently, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), for example, and other groups in a similar kind of persuasion, are being more overtly political. And I’m not sure that’s always going to work.

“But like I said, it depends on each case, each topic and each thing that you’re trying to change. There is not a blanket approach to all of them.”

Labour Students: Government had ‘nothing against charities campaigning until they criticised it’

A member of Labour Students said they thought it was important for charities to campaign on issues that are important to them and the causes and people they represent. 

They said: “Any rhetoric that’s claiming that charities shouldn’t be involved in political issues is coming from people who don’t want to see change on those issues and who want it to stop.”

Andy Fenner from Labour Friends of the Forces said: “They have never had anything against charities campaigning for years until they’re criticising them. I think it should be a massive lesson to everybody in the country.

“We should not be in a situation where the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts are being painted as being extremist. They’re not extremist. You cannot get more English than the RSPB.

“This narrative that we’ve now got where the moment you campaign or the moment you draw something out that you are branded as a ‘snowflake’ or ‘woke’ this or whatever the term of the moment is, you get called it and you say: ‘Actually I’m not, I’m not anything else other than someone who thinks that something is not right.’”

Disability Labour: ‘What are they supposed to do – be silent?’

Jonathan Farr, treasurer of Disability Labour, said: “If we take an organisation like, for example, the RSPB, some of their aims and objectives are to help preserve wildlife and birds and things that involve the need for legislative change. 

“So how can a charity not campaign for legislative change, if that’s what is needed to meet their aims and objectives? 

“I’ve used that as one example but that applies to any charity. For example, Scope. How can you say they can’t campaign for legislative change? For the benefit of the people that they’re representing?” 

Kathryn Bole, chair of Disability Labour, said: “I would say that because of the way things are which the government has created, charities are picking up the people off the ground that the government is failing. And what are they supposed to do, be silent? I don’t think so.”

Meanwhile, when asked if charities should campaign, one anonymous attendee at the Labour Party conference said: “Yeah, isn’t that an important part of charity’s jobs? I think it’s the role of charities to voice the concerns of civil society because who else will?”

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