As we come within touching distance of parliament’s dissolution, on Tuesday I attended the social leaders debate organised by Acevo and the Charities Aid Foundation, featuring: Rob Wilson, the Conservative Minister for Civil Society; Lisa Nandy, his Labour shadow; Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Nathan Gill, leader of Ukip Wales and an MEP for Wales; and Bill Rigby, chair of the Harrogate & District Green Party.
I’ve heard Nandy and Wilson duke it out across various third sector gatherings in recent months. At these events Nandy’s key policies have been reiterated many times, while Wilson has extolled the government’s track record – the National Citizen Service in particular – but has not set out concrete proposals for the sector.
The five-way format was a welcome break from the Rob and Lisa show. But, as life is short, I’m going to skip over Rigby and Brake (who was the second signature on the lobbying act, or the "transparency act" as he calls it), neither of whom contributed a great deal in the way of actual policy.
The evening’s wildcard was Ukip’s Gill. Although he said he supported the sector’s campaigning voice, saying it was "important that charities are able to be the voice of the voiceless", there were other subjects on which he was clearly out of step with the sector, and the room. He came out with some left-field suggestions: for example, that government could underwrite the bank accounts of Muslim charities that fall victim to bank de-risking and the creation of a US-style system of tax reliefs for charitable donors. He also seemed to suggest, although it wasn’t quite clear, that government shouldn’t give grants to charities, because charities should be able raise the cash themselves. "If your cause is just, the people will support you," he said.
I had wondered before the event what reception Ukip would get – would people boo? Heckle? Chuckle? In the event, a couple of exasperated gasps aside, there wasn’t much in that vein. "I don’t believe it’s the role of government to find volunteers for your charities," Gill said at one point, to be greeted by a sole, large, forced laugh. He responded with what can only be described as a death stare. Any plans for active dissent from the audience went no further.
Post-debate, I encountered two schools of thought about Gill, the first a default tactic of progressive-minded people when dealing with Ukip – to dismiss him as incoherent and uninformed, sometimes in a way that wilfully misrepresented him. It was a fair assessment in part, but so was the second reaction – to suggest that he actually came across as somewhat credible if a little unpolished. As Ukip’s international development spokesman, Gill will take a lead on charity issues ahead of the election along with Suzanne Evans, deputy chair of Ukip and founder of the charity Lipoedema UK. I wonder which tactic the sector will use if Ukip's charity policies become more coherently presented.
Of course, the real meat of the evening was Nandy and Wilson, but we didn’t learn anything new from either of them. Nandy has cast something of a spell on the sector, and plenty of people think she’s wonderful. Given her humorous, down-to-earth nature and all-important background in charities, that’s hardly a surprise. Wilson, meanwhile, is seen as a caretaker minister, a party loyalist occupying a role he doesn’t have huge passion for, and I get the feeling that what little patience and respect the sector afforded him seems to be slipping. In the event of a Conservative win, many in the sector might be hoping he doesn’t stay long in the Office for Civil Society. So might he.
I’m categorically not suggesting that there is anything partisan in the work of Acevo or any other charity, but I couldn’t help but feel I was in Labour territory at the debate. That was thanks in part to one person’s suggestion that Nandy had wiped the floor with her opponents – she had not – and because sitting next to Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, during the debate, I heard the former Labour Party councillor making approving noises at many of Nandy’s contributions. And I couldn’t help but feel there was something inopportune about Zoe Williams, a Guardian journalist and lobbying act opponent, being asked to chair the event – a role she nonetheless carried out well.
The party political affiliation of those working in the sector is something of an elephant in the room, a thorny topic and fertile ground for right-wing critics of charities. So here are three questions – does the esteem in which the sector held Nick Hurd, the former minister and a Conservative thoroughbred, prove that individuals within the sector are happy and able to disregard party stripe? Would the sector have been more patient and enthusiastic about the big society, a concept whose principles many in the sector say they agree with, had it come from Labour? And how would people have treated a Labour equivalent of caretaker Wilson?