Mirella von Lindenfels: Why Oliver Letwin's words on charity campaigning reveal an insidious hidden agenda

We can assume he thinks the sector should remember its place, writes the director of Communications Inc

Oliver Letwin's comments at the NCVO's campaigning conference last month reminded me never to underestimate the power of language, particularly of words that slip quietly into your subconscious and then sit there, affecting your views.

Letwin spoke mainly about the Conservatives' vision for the voluntary sector, but he also shared his personal view that some organisations in the sector spend too much time campaigning.

Of several things that struck me about his comments, the most insidious was his application of the term "vast and powerful" to the sector. That was just slipped in there to seed the idea that anything so big and with so much unelected power should be managed and regulated tightly.

It is critically important to the sector that it is always perceived as David to its opponent Goliath - whether that opponent is a campaign adversary or a crisis a charity is seeking to address. And however large or wealthy individual charities might become, the basic truth of the matter remains that we are working against the odds and without the resources of those elected into power who are actually in a position to do something about the problem. If people ever lose sight of that basic truth and begin to think that the sector is too vast or too powerful, our support will be eroded and our impact lost.

Letwin's opening premise was that the sector is exactly that, so it needs to remember its place and accept whatever role his party or any other political party might choose to allot to it. One can assume from his further comments that this role would not include having a voice, for Letwin does not value a sector that does much campaigning. We are, he said, supposed to "change things and solve problems", but without campaigning; yet change is actually what campaigning helps to produce.

Instead he envisages the sector as one of the "cornerstones" of the Conservative vision. Cornerstone - another important word that slips into the subconscious. Cornerstones are solid and reliable, stable, part of the foundations, part of the establishment - so they can't disagree, criticise or go their own way.

What I value about the sector is that it is not part of Letwin's world. This is the third sector, not a cornerstone for the first sector, and although any power should be controlled, it should not allow itself to be co-opted or coerced. Above all, it should not allow its voice to be muted. Election or no election, the business of "changing things and solving problems" goes on, and we need a strong voice to do it.

Mirella von Lindenfels is director of Communications Inc

Fact file: Letwin on campaigning

  • Oliver Letwin is Conservative MP for West Dorset. He is a former shadow Home Secretary and shadow Chancellor.
  • Speaking at the NCVO's campaigning conference last month, he said he regretted that "so much of the effort of some parties in the voluntary sector is devoted to campaigning".
  • He added: "They are free to do it, but what I treasure about the sector isn't its campaigning role. Its special contribution is to do something to change things and solve problems."
  • He described the voluntary sector as "one of the cornerstones" of what the Conservatives wanted to achieve and said that a "vast and powerful" sector was necessary to deal with problems that the private sector was unwilling and the state unable to address.
  • Letwin will write the Tories' election manifesto this year. The election must take place by 3 June.

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