In the international development sector, Save the Children is often considered one of the Conservative Party’s favourite charities, focused on saving lives and mostly steering clear of politics. Oxfam, by contrast, aims to change the world and is seen to be more favoured by Labour.
So it was slightly unexpected when a row blew up in September over Save the Children’s announcement of a campaign to raise money for the poorest children in the UK, based on research that showed some were going without hot meals and proper school uniforms.
The backlash was led by Conservative MPs, some of whom are uncomfortable about charities getting involved in political campaigning. For example, Brian Binley, the Conservative MP for Northampton South, said he was increasingly concerned about the charity’s "political involvement and the people who are getting involved in it, seemingly with a political agenda, from the top down".
This was a reference to the fact that the chief executive of Save the Children UK is Justin Forsyth, who was Gordon Brown’s strategic communications and campaigns director until Labour lost the 2010 General Election. Forsyth had spent most of his career with Oxfam until Tony Blair recruited him in 2004 to advise on poverty and climate change.
Right-wing commentators took up the theme. Christopher Snowdon (right) of the Institute for Economic Affairs, who had recently written the Sock Puppets pamphlet against campaigning charities funded by the government, said: "They didn’t do this during the depression of the 1930s, they didn’t do this during the winter of discontent – it is completely about party politics."
And the following month Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, warmed to the subject, using his column in The Daily Telegraph to point out that Peter Watt, a former Labour general secretary, now works for the NSPCC and former Brown spin doctor Damian McBride is at Cafod. Nelson asserted that Brown had deliberately prepared for a new kind of opposition conducted through charities, quangos and think tanks, and had had a special unit using public appointments to build "a kind of government in exile."
Nelson went further, describing the Charity Commission’s 2008 partial relaxation of its guidance on charity campaigning as "changing the rules so charities could join political campaigns," and concluding that "Britain’s charities are nurturing a colourful, talented and efficient anti-Tory alliance."
He could have gone further still and named other former Labour officials and supporters now in senior positions with charities: Peter Kyle, the former No 10 advisor who is now deputy leader of the chief executives body Acevo; Matthew Taylor, another former Downing Street strategist who became chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts in 2006; Dan Corrie, former economic adviser to Gordon Brown, who heads New Philanthropy Capital; Joe Irvin, former political secretary to Brown, who is chief executive of Navca; and Baroness Delyth Morgan, a Labour minister in the Lords from 2007, who returned last year to run Breast Cancer Campaign.
This confirms a feature of British political life for the past half-century – that the path between the voluntary sector and Westminster is more often trodden by Labour supporters, just as the path between the City or business and Westminster is followed more often by Conservatives. Some voluntary sector leaders have become Labour MPs and ministers – examples include Chris Pond, director of the Low Pay Unit (now called the Low Pay Commission) until his election in 1999, and Nick Raynsford, director of the Shelter Housing Aid Centre until 1986. When Lord Dubs lost his Commons seat in 1987 he became director of the British Refugee Council.
Matthew Taylor of the RSA says: "Saying that Labour people, with a good understanding of government, gravitate towards the charity world once they are out of office offers no more insight than ex-Tories who join the boards of PR firms and large corporates when they leave power."
He adds that it is unhelpful for Nelson to associate quangos, whose staff go through a public appointments process, with charities, which are independent organisations with a board of trustees: "And to suggest that, for instance, child poverty charities are concerned with the plight of children living in poverty because they are stuffed with Brownites is bonkers," he says.
Joe Irvin (right) of Navca points out that, of the thousands of charity chief executives, only a few have experience of working for a political party, while the rest have no specific affiliation.
"I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories," he says. "I came back to the charity sector not to pursue politics by other means but to support charitable work. If the government – whatever its colour – do well, we praise them. If they do something we strongly disagree with, we say so. Charities have a duty to have an independent voice, so I reject this argument."
Irvin says charities lobby the government openly, accountably and on behalf of the people they serve and points out that, following Nelson’s critique, Navca was criticised by the National Coalition for Independent Action for being pro-government. "This makes me feel we are getting the balance about right," he says.
Other charity leaders who are also former or current Labour party members say they joined specific causes for personal reasons. Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Campaign, says she developed an interest in the issue at university when she wanted to become a research scientist.
"My sister, Adrienne, has secondary breast cancer and while this is currently manageable, she can’t be cured. That’s why I do the job I do – working with whoever sits in government to ensure women and men with breast cancer get the best diagnosis, treatments and quality of life."
Francine Bates, chief executive of the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, says she joined the charity because she is concerned about infant mortality rates in the UK. She had worked for another charity for seven years before taking a position as a special adviser to Ed Balls.
"Fraser Nelson presents a distorted picture of third sector leadership," she says. "The recruitment process for FSID was transparent and I was chosen by trustees who had no contacts with the last government. On several occasions, I have commented on coalition government policies that impact on our work and our beneficiaries, but I do that as the leader of a charity committed to reducing sudden infant death in the UK, not as a former special adviser."
Kevin Curley (right), Irvin’s predecessor at Navca, says that it and its member organisations have to reflect their membership, not party politics. "The board at Navca is very strong and is attuned to the risk of political bias," he says. "Our maxim when I was at Derby CVS was ‘we care passionately about what government does, but don’t care who the government is'."
"Most of the sector leaders I meet claim to be enthusiastic about public services outsourcing, closer working with the private sector and growing the social investment market. Some of them even want to run the state’s prisons. My objections are met with ‘stop whingeing’. These are hardly the attributes of people with a Labour bias."
Tony Blair’s former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, dismisses Nelson’s argument. "It is a good thing that people with experience of campaigns and government help the voluntary sector, and it's absurd for right-wingers to see it as some kind of left-wing plot."
Fraser Nelson did not respond to Third Sector’s requests for an interview. His argument was recently taken up by Times columnist Alice Thomson, who wrote that "since Brown changed the rules in 2008 to allow charities to join in political campaigns, they have increasingly attracted his own party activists...Tony's cronies are still with us and Gordon's men have dug in."