Interview: 'The Tories have changed their view'

Titus Alexander of Novas Scarman tells John Plummer the coalition is beginning to warm to charity campaigning

Titus Alexander
Titus Alexander

In the run-up to last year's general election, the MP Oliver Letwin wondered whether charities spent too much time lobbying. This sparked concerns that the Conservatives would discourage campaigning if they returned to power.

Letwin was the architect of the Tory manifesto at the time and is now an influential Cabinet Office minister in a Conservative-dominated coalition. Yet any fears generated by his comments appear so far to be unfounded.

In fact, one of the voluntary sector's most experienced campaigners says the coalition government's approach to the subject is more radical and enlightened than many people imagined and many Tories even realise.

"The last Conservative government was paranoid about political opposition at any level and jumped on anyone who questioned government policies or encouraged political understanding and public engagement," says Titus Alexander, head of campaigns at the community support charity Novas Scarman.

"Over the past few years, members of this government have shifted their position; they seem to welcome effective opposition and campaigning."

Alexander says the most striking example of the government's new approach is its plan to create 5,000 community MP Oliver Letwinorganisers to help deliver the big society by encouraging community action, creating new community groups and increasing the effectiveness of existing groups.

Training for the programme will be based on the ideas of the American community organiser Saul Alinsky and the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Alinsky's methods for community organising influenced Barack Obama and have been adopted by a number of organisations in the UK, including London Citizens.

Alexander says choosing Alinsky and Freire's models of community activism shows a serious commitment to the grass roots and has the potential to transfer power to local people in ways that will challenge traditional community development work.

"Done well, it will be a game-changer," says Alexander. "It could change the dynamics of community politics." But the danger, he warns, is that it could all fizzle out.

Alexander, who wrote Campaigning is OK! in 2008, has quizzed a number of politicians about the campaigning role of charities through the various organisations he has helped to set up, such as Democracy Matters and Charter 99. "I have challenged a succession of Conservative politicians when they have questioned the campaigning role of charities and civil society, and on each occasion they have become more open as a result," he says.

He cites Prime Minister David Cameron, the civil society minister Nick Hurd and the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude as examples of Tories who have become more positive about campaigning. He also points to Sir Geoffrey Howe becoming a patron of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, which encourages emerging campaigners, as further evidence of the shift.

Alexander's long-term hope is that government funds community activism courses as commonly as it does adult literacy. "There should be something to help people understand how the system works and how to make a case," he says.

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