Opinion: Hot issue - Is the Government co-opting the sector's ideas?

In a speech last month at Cass Business School, Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO, described the Government as a "sophisticated ringmaster in the big tent, adept at co-opting language, ideas and people".


Campaigning organisations will always face hard choices about whether to go for the ideal or the attainable.

Going for the attainable - understanding "when the concrete is fluid", as Virginia Bottomley put it, and how the campaign's objectives can be aligned to those of government - gives more results in the short term.

So the Million Faces campaign on controlling arms sales, run by Amnesty, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms, has a chance of achieving some success in regulating the sale of arms worldwide.

However, we also always need the uncompromising stance of those who remind us that some things are just wrong. Wilberforce campaigned in Parliament for 24 years before the slave trade was made illegal.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade's goal of eliminating Britain's role in selling weapons is not only right, but probably has the backing of public opinion (and of many in the military). But it faces an even longer haul than Wilberforce.

Those going for the ideal need to avoid co-option like the plague. For those going for the attainable, collaboration with government is almost inevitable. Both approaches are needed. And both are alive.


Labour's love of popular slogans was identified as a major problem early on in the Make Poverty History campaign. Blair and Brown were quick to position themselves as friends of the movement, and their speeches made liberal use of our language. Yet they refused to make the key changes necessary to live up to the fine words.

Trade represents the worst case. For five years now the Blair government has used the language of trade justice while continuing to promote the most damaging pro-corporate agenda in global trade talks. Government officials even admit (in private) how wide the gulf is between rhetoric and policy in this area.

War on Want's role has always been to expose empty rhetoric without fear or favour, so we can afford to be more critical than other NGOs. But all of us need to be more canny in this respect. We often make it too easy for the Government to dress up in our clothes, and we end up undermining our own cause in the process.


Gandhi was wrong when he said: "First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win." He should have added: "Then they steal all your slogans and pretend they love you."

Although some parts of the voluntary sector struggle to get innovative and effective solutions 'mainstreamed', others, such as members of the Make Poverty History alliance, find their language and symbols borrowed by government.

This is clearly a symptom of success, and it's a lot better than being ignored. But it also creates an entirely false sense of the level of agreement between campaigners and government - it diffuses criticism and complicates supporter communication. If Peter Mandelson is wearing a white band, does that means he agrees with MPH about trade justice? The answer is, obviously, no.

With the advent of big-tent politics and the perfection of the dark art of 'triangulation', voluntary sector communicators face some difficult challenges.

Dealing with those challenges will mean going beyond easily co-opted, top-line messaging and instead highlighting the often enormous gap between rhetoric and reality.


It may want to, but the Government is almost always many steps behind the most effective charities. It can be stymied by the policy compromisesthat are forced by rows between ministers and departments and, even at its best, is slower than a nimble charity that is in touch with its audience.

Does government want to co-opt the sector's ideas and, more importantly, its public credibility? The answer to that is undoubtedly yes, so the sector does need to be robust in challenging those politicians who think it is enough to just wear the wristband rather than put their policy money where their mouths are. Charities should remember that politicians need their support, so a charity can stand up and be challenging without necessarily losing influence behind the scenes.

A slightly different question relates to the role of public funding for projects delivered by charities. Does this necessarily threaten independence?

No more than a funding relationship with any other major donor, I'd say.

The rules are the same - be clear about the aims of the project and stay firm in your wider public policy positions.

Get the balance right and you can still secure public funding without becoming a prisoner of the public purse.

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