A brief history of party manifestos and charities

As we start a hectic week of manifesto launches, we thought it would be worth taking a look back at some of the more interesting proposals for charities and volunteering and how some ideas have developed over time. This is based on a pretty brief look at post-war manifestos, and I’m sure others may have more expertise: do get involved in the comments if so.

Charities didn’t feature very much after the war

In the immediate post-war period, parties were making limited pledges involving charities and the voluntary sector. The word ‘charity’ was not used in any major party manifesto until 1970, though debates about the role of the voluntary sector and the state were clearly still taking place.

The Conservative manifesto in 1945 for example calls for voluntary hospitals to work in partnership with local authority hospitals, as what would become the National Health Service was being established.

The 1960s saw parties start to promote the role of charities in supporting international aid, with Labour’s 1966 manifesto mentioning voluntary bodies as one of those who could help to tackle the ‘war on want’.

Parties also started to look at ways to encourage volunteering, with the Liberals in 1964 and Conservatives in 1966 seeking to promote Voluntary Service Overseas.

Supporting the welfare state

From the 1970s we start to see manifestos discussing a greater role for voluntary organisations in areas such as the welfare state and housing, with the 1970 Conservative manifesto in particular acknowledging the contribution of volunteers and voluntary organisations as part of a ‘genuine partnership of effort between statutory and voluntary organisations’.

Attentions also turned to the legal frameworks of charities, with the February 1974 Conservative manifesto containing a pledge to review that framework, recognising the valuable work done by voluntary organisations and the need to help them ‘without compromising their independence’. At the same election, Labour pledged to withdraw tax relief and charitable status from public schools, a pledge they would go on to repeat in a number of future manifestos.

For those wondering what short spaces between elections mean for manifestos, much of the February 1974 content was retained in October 1974, though I suspect we’ll see less carried over from 2015 to 2017.

Tax and financial incentives

The 1980s saw a growth in efforts to provide tax relief for charities and increased incentives for private giving, with the 1983 Conservative manifesto highlighting reductions in tax for charities under the Conservative government and increased incentives for giving. Labour’s 1983 manifesto meanwhile argued for incentives to be given to voluntary bodies to increase their involvement in the provision of sporting and community facilities, though this probably wasn’t one of the policies that led to that manifesto’s notoriety.

Growth of the ‘sector’

The 1987 Liberal-SDP Alliance manifesto saw the first specific section on the voluntary sector, including a proposal to support full-time volunteering opportunities without those taking part losing social security entitlements.

The 1992 Conservative manifesto followed suit with a voluntary sector section highlighting the party’s introduction of gift aid while in government (in 1990), and proposing a ‘national bank of information on opportunities for volunteering’. It also pledged the creation of a National Lottery that would provide money for good causes.

The 1997 Labour manifesto saw a significant role for charities in areas such as supporting skills and helping long-term unemployed people find work. It also proposed ‘a national citizens’ service programme, to tap the enthusiasm and commitment of the many young people who want to make voluntary contributions in service of their communities’. It wasn’t until 2011 that this was realised, although by the Conservative-Lib Dem government.

Peak voluntary sector?

The 2000s saw the most consistent commitment from all parties in manifestos to government working with charities, at a time when the principle of a close relationship between the state and the voluntary sector was receiving significant backing from the then Labour government.

The 2001 Conservative manifesto argued that charities should be more involved in delivering overseas aid and stated that they would work towards achieving the UN’s target of 0.7% of GDP being spent on aid. (Labour had previously pledged to meet the target in a number of manifestos, including as early as 1970 when the target was first set. It wasn’t until 2013 that this target was achieved, and it was later enshrined in law via a Lib Dem MP’s private member’s bill in 2015.)

2001 also saw the Conservatives pledge to help charities by ‘abolishing their irrecoverable VAT liabilities’, and suggested the creation of a new ‘Office for Civil Society’ to provide families, faith communities and voluntary groups with ‘a voice at the heart of government’. It was 5 years later when the Office for the Third Sector was introduced, albeit by Labour (under the first minister for the third sector, Ed Miliband). The Conservatives finally got to implement their original idea for the unit’s name after they formed (most of) the 2010 government.

Labour’s manifesto in 2001 promised to build on the Compact with the voluntary sector, as well as highlighting what they had done on increasing giving by changing tax rules The Liberal Democrats meanwhile wanted to encourage volunteering through the promotion of time banks.

Labour’s 2005 manifesto was clearly inspired by the potential of the partnership between state and voluntary sector, making numerous references to that partnership and providing the assessment that: ‘In a range of services the voluntary and community sector has shown itself to be innovative, efficient and effective.’ This theme was then taken on by the 2010 Conservative manifesto in the form of the Big Society.

Are charities still at the forefront of policy?

The growing role of charities in delivering services was reflected by what political parties promised to do in their manifestos as we reached the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st. We’ll take a more detailed look at the 2017 manifestos at the end of the week as to whether they are still front and centre of policy discussion, but we may have passed that peak, possibly in part because the role of charities is now so firmly embedded and mainstream that it no longer constitutes something novel or distinctive enough to merit attention in a manifesto.

Whatever ends up in the manifestos themselves, we believe charities are central to solving some of the biggest challenges we face, and we’ve set out five ideas that we think will allow charities and volunteering to make an even greater contribution in our 2017 manifesto (PDF, 8MB).

If you enjoyed this:

You might like to get involved with the Voluntary Action History Society.

You might enjoy: Eight reasons charities should be interested in their archives (NCVO blog)

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Avatar photo Chris is NCVO’s public affairs manager, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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