Charities and the Conservative Party conference

Final stop of of the party conference season of 2016 was Birmingham, where the Conservative Party met for its annual get-together. This was a very different affair to last week’s Labour conference in Liverpool: bigger, busier and more, er, Brexity. I think I counted 43 fringe events in Birmingham with Brexit in the title. And if there’s one thing I definitely learned, it’s don’t call your next event or report ‘Beyond Brexit…’ as this has now been done to death.

Amid the sandwiches, cheap red wine and endless blue pin-striped suits (I was warned of blue-suit blindness by one colleague), this was also a different conference from the perspective of charities and voluntary organisations, I reckon. Whereas at Labour conference the mood was a little frustrated with the sense that the party was still too inward focussed, here the messages we got were of a party in a phase of policy renewal, where ministers and their teams were on the hunt for fresh ideas. And if Theresa May’s conference speech this morning was anything to go by, a change of direction, with government now seen as a tool for active intervention to deliver wide-ranging social and economic reform. So, a few reflections, once again with the caveat that these are interpretations and that it might not be quite right.

1. Social reform is the new black

There were huge queues for fringe events on poverty, inequality, foreign aid etc. The Conservatives were very keen to discuss these issues and find Conservative solutions to problems of (geographical) inequality, poverty, homes and work. Clearly conferences are awash with rhetoric – but it feels that there is a real opportunity to add ballast to the rhetoric by filling an empty-ish policy space with solutions based on social enterprise, philanthropy and social action/reciprocity.

2. Will the biggest impact of Brexit be on domestic policy?

One of the more interesting Brexit fringe events had James O’Shaughnessy speaking about a new report from the Legatum Institute and Centre for Social Justice, which it is worth noting in passing cites the importance of voluntary action in post-referendum Britain. Anyway, Lord O’Shaughnessy’s simple but important insight was that the referendum result is going to be more wide-reaching in its impact on domestic policy than any impact on foreign policy or trade. In short, its leading to substantial change in how we think about work, housing, place and so on. Hence the huge interest in social reform at the conference.

3. Read the CSJ’s outputs, join their mailing list

The Centre for Social Justice is clearly now the think tank of choice. Downing Street is recruiting their alumni and any analysis of their work would conclude strong connections between the new government agenda and the CSJ (see my next point). They already work with a network of 350 charities and I think they are well placed to influence government. Disclaimer: one of NCVO’s trustees is the new CEO of CSJ.

4. Government wants to renew – reset? – its relationship with the voluntary sector

Probably a bit more contentious on my part, but the establishment of a new government relations unit in Downing Street, with leads for the voluntary and faith sectors, suggest a government that recognises it has a problem. I’m on record as saying that the relationship in the last few years, post-Lobbying Act, has been difficult. This might be an opportunity for a reset, though said Lobbying Act, plus the paused anti-advocacy clauses in grant agreements, need to be part of any reset. The voluntary sector lead in No 10 will be Charlotte Lawson, from CSJ.

5. Changes at the Treasury and in the public finances?

Change might be in the air at the Treasury. We heard a couple of times that the Treasury is perceived to have had too much control over the domestic policy agenda, and that this might change – something Robert Peston blogged about. With Philip Hammond announcing a more flexible approach to balancing the books and the deficit reduction target… it might imply some optimism for charities endlessly told that austerity means austerity.

6. More Brexit, less charity bashing

There was generally a positive mood amongst charities at the conference, which might partly have been because there was much less charity bashing than at last year’s event. I note much less, but not a complete absence. There’s still a lingering unease about what some charities are actually for, about pay in large charities and more generally just about large charities. Interesting to note that ministers who did criticise ‘large charities’ simultaneously praised local projects that were in their constituency. Message: we’re all local now. If not, we have to be.

7. Charity quote of the week

Relieved of the burden of running a charity, Stephen Bubb proffered a view on opinion polls, particularly those that show the public don’t trust charities:

‘The first charity was set up in the sixth century. Long before opinion polls!’

As ever, interested to hear the thoughts of others who were there – tweet and I’ll add 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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