Mark Flannagan: After Brexit, we must take a look at ourselves

There was no clamour to leave the European Union in the charity sector, but now we have to deal with the reality, writes the chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

Now that the European Union referendum is over and we consider the aftermath can we take a little time out to consider our sector and its political persuasion?

Despite the final result, I did not meet one charity worker who told me they were for Brexit, though I did hear many express passionate support for remaining. The shock I saw among colleagues when the final result was announced was universal. What does this indicate about the political bias of our sector? Brexit views might have been vocalised by the general public, but they were silent in our charity world. The Brexit vote puts the public, our donors and beneficiaries at odds with charity workers.

It will not surprise anybody if charity workers appear to be overwhelmingly left of centre. You just have to say the words Daily Mail in a room full of voluntary sector staff and there will be an audible hiss and a race to publicly declare distaste for its political leanings. Similarly, at any charity conference you are more likely to see The Guardian being read than The Daily Telegraph. I remember a survey after the election of the Labour government in 1997 showing that a higher proportion of voluntary and public sector staff were on the government benches than ever before. This fact alone might explain the sense of disappointment some felt when the Labour government did not simply open the doors wide and embrace every idea from our sector.

But the history of charity in the UK goes back to Victorian, Tory philanthropy. Doing good works for the less fortunate was at the core of charity in the 19th century. The principles of One Nation Conservatism drove the desire to close the gap between the haves and have-nots. I wonder how many charity staff today identify as Tory and argue from a political standpoint that it is possible to be right of centre and also deeply committed to the work of our sector.

Of course, this might all be simplistic. Compassion is not exclusive to nor can it be owned by one party or political tendency. Intolerance and indifference can be found on all sides. But maybe those working in charity tend to be more anti-establishment. Maybe we are less willing to accept things as they are and more willing to see radical solutions. I would like to think so.

That said, let’s take an honest look at our own sector. An establishment presence runs throughout it. We have to populate our trustee boards with the so-called great and good because they have the connections we need to raise funds and make change happen. It is a fact of life that who you know often beats what you know.

Personally I would welcome a more diverse political profile for our sector. Our aims and objectives should receive broad public support. This includes our campaigning aims, which we should defend as a force for the good for all of society. The question is this: is our sector ready and willing to be more Daily Mail than Guardian?

Mark Flannagan is chief executive Beating Bowel Cancer. @MarkFlannCEO

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