Interview: 'A charity leader must be politically independent'

Baroness Morgan tells why she resigned the Labour whip when she took the job as chief executive at Breast Cancer Campaign

Baroness Morgan
Baroness Morgan

If the slate grey skies of economic downturn, spending cuts and riots inspire nostalgia for a less complicated age, Delyth Morgan's return to the voluntary sector will be reassuring. In 1995, when she was the newly ensconced chief executive of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, the charity inhabited a world of meetings around wallpaper tables in cramped offices and stuffing envelopes late into the night.

But Breakthrough grew exponentially. Fifteen years later, it had an income of £18m and research centres in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Morgan has now returned to head a different, though similar, charity - Breast Cancer Campaign. Things are also different for her personally. In her six-year absence from the voluntary sector, Morgan became a government minister under Gordon Brown. She served as intellectual property minister and then children's minister, from 2008 to 2010. After Labour lost last year's election, she became the shadow education minister in the House of Lords. She is indelibly associated with Labour, and some would see that as uncomfortable baggage.

Morgan, who was raised to the peerage by Tony Blair in 2004 (her full title is Baroness Morgan of Drefelin), resigned the Labour whip and became a cross-bencher this year when she was appointed chief executive of Breast Cancer Campaign. "I think that if you lead a charity, you have to be independent politically," she says. "You can't take a whip from a party. The reputation of the charity is everything."

Morgan says the decision to resign the Labour whip is not mandated by charity law and "other people may have different views". Debbie Scott, for example, is the chief executive of the charity Tomorrow's People and a Conservative member of the House of Lords.

Morgan remains a baroness and will speak in the House of Lords on cancer issues, but on nothing else for the foreseeable future. "I'm starting a new job, so my priority is here," she says. "I might do bits and pieces, but I don't think I'll take an interest in other things." She remains a member of the Labour Party, but says she won't hold office or speak for the party.

Will her past as a Labour minister be a disadvantage in lobbying the current Conservative-Lib Dem coalition? Morgan thinks not. "It's all about how well you present your arguments," she says. "It's not about me personally". She also makes the point that the current government has no aversion to Labour ex-ministers - a reference to John Hutton's role in the pensions review and Alan Milburn's appointment as social mobility tsar.

"The climate has changed," says Morgan, referring to the tough economic environment that charities now face. But it's also changed for breast cancer, in a different way. Breast cancer is now a tremendous charity success story, when judged in terms of fundraising, public awareness and health spending. It's a transformation that Morgan, in her decade as chief executive of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, helped to bring about.

"When I first started, breast cancer was a condition people never talked about, so there's been a great change in the levels of awareness," she says.

But as chief executive of Breast Cancer Campaign, Morgan faces a different problem. Where do you go after success?

"We have to remember that 12,000 women die every year of breast cancer," she says. "We have seen real improvements through screening, awareness and all that. But there is a hell of a lot more to do. That's why, for me, research is so important."

Breast Cancer Campaign is primarily a research charity. It spends more than £16m in 31 different hospitals and universities in the UK and Ireland. The fundraising it does - the skydiving, runs and events - are all designed to fund this research, aimed at finding a cure. A recent rebrand, completed before Morgan arrived at the charity in July, was about trying to explain that science - labelled "pink science" - in a more accessible way.

"You've got all the pink, fluffy fundraising that goes on, but actually it's about achieving something very serious," she says. "All that fundraising makes possible these different headings - whether it's in genetics or molecular biology or epidemiology. It's explaining very simply what the science is that we fund."

If being a Labour minister involves a predilection for the colour red, Morgan has not escaped compulsory colour preference by moving back to a breast cancer charity. This time it's pink. But does she actually like it?

"If you care about breast cancer, you end up caring about pink," she says. "It's an unstoppable force, so we've embraced it. But I do like pink. I'm a winter person because I've got this dark, Celtic hair. The colour professionals tell me I should wear pink."

CV:

2011: Chief executive, Breast Cancer Campaign
2010: Opposition spokeswoman on education, House of Lords
2008: Children's minister
2008: Intellectual property minister
2004: Appointed a Labour peer
1995: Chief executive, Breakthrough Breast Cancer

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