Liam Kay: Little cheer for charities from the Labour conference

But the sector could learn something from the way the party has revitalised itself, writes Third Sector's senior reporter, and forge a new relationship with Westminster

Liam Kay
Liam Kay

So the Labour conference has closed for another year, with the party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, firmly in the ascendency after its better-than-predicted general election result. There were many charities in attendance and they seemed to be getting a great response from MPs and party members alike.

But despite the euphoric atmosphere and bullish confidence emanating from the conference platform, one glance at the event listings told you where charities fit into the equation. Charities were conspicuous by their absence from much of the programme, with only a handful of sessions on the Labour fringe tackling issues affecting the sector.

Equally, precious little was said about the charity sector at the conference, with most of the sessions generating little in the way of new policy. There were mentions of Labour’s commitment to repealing the lobbying act and the need to listen to charities during some of the fringe meetings, but it was impossible to decipher from the conference just what a Labour government would mean for charities in the future.

There are, of course, mitigating factors – in particular, the preoccupation with Brexit at the moment gives MPs little opportunity to engage in reforms for other sectors – but there was little evidence in general that charities are at the centre of the party’s thinking.

At a time when the Conservatives have been accused of ignoring charities, it is deeply concerning to see that so little headway appears to have been made with the official opposition. After all, the charity sector employs more than 850,000 people and makes a gross contribution of £12.2bn to the nation’s finances. Of course, charities were also largely absent from the main parties’ manifestos for this year's general election and generally failed to make their mark on the campaign.

Much has been made of the way Corbyn has re-energised Labour and boosted its support, especially among younger voters. Judging by this year’s conference, there is a lot the charity sector could learn from the party’s approach. If the sector wants to be at the centre of the main political parties’ thinking, perhaps it needs to do more to assert itself and make clear the implications of a weak charity sector on the broader economy.

It has been a difficult few years for charities in light of various scandals, but this situation will not change if charities sit on the sidelines, watching industries and political movements win support and force their way to the top of the political agenda.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for charities to be more confident in their approach to government. Looking at recent elections in the UK, Europe and the US, it is clear that the public are not put off by big, bold, radical arguments expressed directly and clearly. A softer approach calling for incremental change has its merits, but is it really succeeding in getting the charity sector the results it wants? Maybe a more radical offering from charities could pay dividends.

Labour‘s slogan "for the many, not the few" accurately captures the charity sector’s impact nationwide. It is a concern that, despite the important role charities could play in helping to achieve Labour’s aims, they are instead sidelined from the party’s main debates. If the sector wants to reset its relationship with Westminster, a new approach is required.

Liam Kay is senior reporter at Third Sector

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