Politics has long been the activity that dare not speak its name in the voluntary sector. Charities have invariably given a wide berth to any stance that could be condemned as 'political' for fear of sanctions from the Charity Commission, or being hauled over the coals by the press.
Organisations that may appear intrinsically charitable, such as Friends of the Earth or the World Development Movement, have shunned such status because of a lingering concern that it would constrain their freedom to campaign.
But charities' reticent self-consciousness over political activities is loosening. In a speech today, NCVO chief executive Stuart Etherington will explicitly state that "charities are political". He says: "It may be political with a small 'p' and it may be the politics of the most marginalised citizens, but it's politics just the same."
Voluntary sector minister Fiona Mactaggart seems to want to provoke the sector into more combative and daring feats of campaigning. Active citizens, she told a volunteering conference a fortnight ago, should be prepared to do "uncomfortable and bad" things for the good of society. In this sense, more liberal Charity Commission guidelines on political activities by charities, due in February, are timely.
But what is given with one hand could be taken away by the other. The Community Fund is preparing new restrictions on political activities by its grant recipients, after incurring the wrath of Home Secretary David Blunkett for giving funding to an organisation that had accused him of "colluding with fascism". According to an April draft, this will clamp down on "doctrinaire" activities by voluntary groups, personal attacks on ministers, outright opposition to government policy and participation in direct action. This can only be described as draconian.
Labour's attitude to the voluntary sector's interventions in politics seems entirely contradictory. What's it to be, the freedom to campaign or the dead hand of the state?