Progressives should reject Letwin’s call for charities to campaign less

Tory Oliver Letwin wants the voluntary and community sector to campaign less; we say a healthy, campaigning voluntary sector is a natural ally for progressives.

Tory manifesto author Oliver Letwin wants the voluntary and community sector (vcs) to campaign less. Addressing delegates at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) conference midweek he said:

“They are free to do it, but what I treasure about the sector isn’t its campaigning role. Its special contribution is to do something to change things and solve problems.”

Any current analysis of the voluntary sector’s ability or desire to deliver public services would certainly not be short of contributors.

From the National Coalition for Independent Action’s Andy Benson – who recently criticised the revised vcs-State “Compact” partnership agreement – to the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action’s Kevin Curley, who set up a 159-member Facebook group titled “Charities must not run prisons”.

Clearly charities are not attracted to campaigning for financial incentives. Compare for example any of the 32 groups whose grants awarded under the Office of the Third Sector’s £750,000 Campaigning Fund were recently withdrawn at the last minute, with the experiences of Turning Point and Catch22 – Serco’s vcs partners in a prisons contract believed to be worth around £600m.

Both Turning Point and Catch22 are still campaigning organisations in their own right – whether or not they deliver outsourced public services is a question for them, their beneficiaries, their members and their mission statement.

In the past charities campaigned as establishment outsiders, using their independence as a strength. But today’s relations with the state are more complex and, when vcs groups go down this route, require a more subtle approach; it is classic poacher-turned-gamekeeper territory where arguments range long into the night.

Another speaker at the conference was Peter Tachell. In the early 1990s his gay rights group OutRage!, Tatchell once said:

“Campaigned so effectively against police harassment that the number of homosexual men convicted of gross indecency in the UK fell by two-thirds in three years.”

However it may manifest and however government chooses to engage it, there will always be a vital campaigning role for the voluntary sector, pushing progressive agendas on and strengthening civic society in the process.

Our guest writer is Gethyn Williams

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