Charities and the Labour Party conference

We’re on the home leg of party conference season, so for those not, ahem, fortunate enough to attend conferences here’s a few thoughts from the Labour Party conference in Liverpool. It was a funny old event: smaller than recent years, not many Labour MPs there and mumblings about how difficult it was to get those MPs who were there to attend fringe events.

As ever, charities put on a great show: I attended excellent fringe events put on by CAF and ACEVO to promote what’s best about our sector, was fortunate to take part in St John Ambulance’s fringe celebrating simply outstanding volunteer cadets, and saw some great stands, with Breast Cancer Care’s a personal favourite.

Anyway, I don’t claim everything in here is right: but it does reflect the conversations we had with NCVO’s members and others.

1. Some Labour MPs think charities are ignoring them

Note the use of the word ‘some’:  we had a bit of mixed feedback here, but the point that seemed to be being made was that charities are only talking to the party in government, either because they are in government or, more controversially, because the accusations that our sector is only sympathetic to the Labour party have hit home. I note in passing that there was a strong showing from charities in the exhibition space, putting across the issues facing their beneficiaries – as we should.

2. Some charities think shadow ministers are ignoring them

There’s a sense that shadow ministers are still pretty much focused on the Labour party and not the brief that they are responsible for. And where shadow ministers are up for a conversation, their back-up teams are struggling to support them in taking forward issues. The flip side of course is that briefings on upcoming bills will be especially welcome.

3. But charities feel more engaged with backbench MPs

Amidst talk of the ‘rise of the backbench MP’, the potential emergence of a ‘shadow shadow team’ and of course some backbench big hitters angling for select committee chairmanships, there was a sense that in the Commons this is where we should be focusing our influencing work.

4. Labour Peers are organised and engaged and want to hear from charities

Led by Angela Smith (former charities minister, no less), there was a sense that they are keen to fulfil their reforming role, plus they understand and have experience of working with charities. There was a real focus in Angela Smith’s comments on the Lords wanting to make a difference in order to produce better bills, rather than simply playing for political gain. Sounds well worth spending effort here in coming months.

5. The Lords Committee on Charities needs more input

I have one important rider to my above comment on the Lords: it sounds like the Lords Committee on Charities is still searching for ideas and, dare I say, sensible recommendations. At CAF’s fringe event, Labour Peer Geoff Roooker floated the recommendation of forcing trusts and foundations to spend their capital, an idea whose time has not, in my opinion, come. The sector needs to be clear what they do want them to do.

6. Look beyond parliament

One of the most interesting things I heard was that we should absolutely be focusing on working with and supporting local councillors or elected mayors such as Sadiq Khan – people at the coalface looking for real solutions in a world where the disappearance of substantial sums of money is leading to some radical thinking and new coalitions. That’s not just a devolution thing –  I think it was almost a sense that national government isn’t dealing with the most important issues and/or is preoccupied with Brexit.

For others who were there, if you share thoughts on Twitter I’ll post them below, or just sign in below.

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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