Peter Stanford: Practicality should always come before party politics

People see charities as repositories of good sense in a world hounded by political dogma about privatisation and public services

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Will it matter which way the chair of your charity votes in the general election? The question will become more significant as the 2015 poll nears - but it has come to my attention as a result of the recent spat over the decision by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, to refuse Baroness Sally Morgan, a Labour peer, a second term as chair of Ofsted.

Various political opponents of Mr Gove have accused him, and the government more generally, of trying to ensure that 'yes-men' and 'yes-women' - but mostly men - are appointed to the chairs of various high-profile quangos.

Before the argument over Morgan, there was one about Dame Suzi Leather, who was replaced as chair of the Charity Commission by William Shawcross, someone seen as more instinctively amenable to a Tory government. Both arguments come down to two simple questions. Were they doing a good job? And did their personal politics make them any less effective? The answers seem to be "yes" and "no", in that order. So why did their removal cause such a storm?

Party politics

The reason is that party politics is now loathed more widely and by more people than is healthy for our democracy. This state of affairs, in turn, brings a fear that, as soon as party politics arrives through one door, good sense and trustworthiness leave by another.

Why do people give money to charities? Because they trust charities and see them as repositories of good sense in a world hounded by political dogma about privatisation and public services. Of course I know that charities campaign, but it is usually on the basis of the practical situations that their everyday, sleeves-rolled-up work confronts them with - that is, with an air of authority and need, not of positioning and point-scoring.

The last thing we want to do is allow our trustee boards to become bogged down by party politics. I think most people can see the danger. In the 20 years I've spent as a charity chair, I have served on boards with people of wildly different party allegiances to my own. However, I hope I have never let that get in the way of the smooth operation of governance.

But in practice it isn't always easy. Take a simple case of where to invest charity reserves. I remember once arguing passionately that they shouldn't go into anything that increased climate change. A fellow trustee, who wanted every wind-turbine dismantled, went crimson at the very suggestion. We had to work hard to find a compromise - aided, I should note, by the Charity Commission's instruction that we must seek out the best return, not necessarily the most ethical one.

Service delivery

But the more government tries to enlist third sector representatives as co-workers to deliver social projects - from back-to-work schemes to the rehabilitation of prisoners - the trickier it becomes. Old-style Labour voters want nothing to do with such privatisation, while die-hard Tories can't see the problem with who actually delivers the services.

It can be tough to square that circle, and it might require trustees to put aside their personal party political prejudices and instincts in favour of being pragmatic. Here is one example from when I was the chair of a spinal injuries charity that made good the shortfall in NHS provision of wheelchairs by providing grants so that individuals got the right chair for them. On one occasion, I was told that I was underwriting government failure to fund the health service - therefore I was guilty of supporting privatisation.

The comment took me by surprise, but the dispute was resolved by being pragmatic. There is a need not being answered. We could have campaigned to change policy, but someone in the wrong wheelchair might have then had to wait 10, 20 or 50 years for the right one.

As the line between state and third sectors becomes increasingly blurred, more of these clashes will occur. The only way to get through them is for the chair to remain absolutely above party political allegiance and be able to drive the charity forward in the most practical way.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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