Is it war? Is it peace? Is it something in between? The ambivalence of Conservatives towards charities and voluntary organisations has become increasingly visible since the party started governing in its own right in May, and that ambivalence was on full display at its conference this week. A visitor seeking enlightenment during those three rollercoaster days in Manchester would be forgiven for coming away feeling a bit dizzy.
Take the reform of fundraising regulation. The day before the conference, the charities minister, Rob Wilson, announced that he was accepting in full the recommendations of the review of self-regulation by Sir Stuart Etherington. It was a Saturday, and the release seemed timed to catch the government-friendly Sunday papers and allow ministers to trumpet it from the platform. This was, after all, an example of decisive government action on a matter of evident public concern.
In the event, neither really happened. The right-leaning press had already done its victory dance some time before, and the spin doctors presumably decided that more charity-bashing didn’t fit with dominant conference themes such as George Osborne’s "we are the builders" and David Cameron’s apparent revival of compassionate Conservativism. Either that, or the Office for Civil Society doesn’t get its voice heard at the top of government. It was notable that Osborne's announcement on restoring business rates to councils did not contain any firm assurances about charity rebates.
Then there was the decision to ban from the conference the fringe event involving speakers from the Muslim Charities Forum. This was apparently done on the basis of a Sunday Telegraph report by Andrew Gilligan, the former BBC journalist at the heart of the episode in the Iraq war that ended with the suicide of the civil servant David Kelly. The report sought to link the speakers with terrorism; the best riposte to it is a blog by Peter Oborne, a former Telegraph journalist. Whatever the rationale for the ban, it came over as a denial of free speech and only intensified the climate of official suspicion experienced by many Muslim charities. This was not a good move.
Another fringe event involved discussions about charity staff being mainly Labour supporters, and the contention by the MEP Daniel Hannan that any charity that used donations for lobbying without being upfront about it was "stealing from the church poor box". He also alleged that Oxfam supported Labour, thus continuing a familiar theme. This event was hosted by the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs, whose "sock puppets" pamphlet on charities and campaigning was championed by the former communities secretary Eric Pickles. One attendant complained about the RSPCA "targeting David Cameron's hunt."
But just when everybody was resigning themselves to the familiar iron fist, out came the velvet glove. First, the party’s director of outreach, Colin Bloom, popped up to talk about his plans for speed-dating between charities and politicians; then Third Sector learned that Nick Mason, a Tory parliamentary candidate and former fundraising strategist at the sight-loss charity the RNIB, was forming a group called Conservative Friends of the Third Sector. This is geared mainly to bringing tegether Conservative supporters working in charities, who will presumably form a counterweight to all those Labourites; but at least the theme was positive rather than hostile.
So what to make of it all? The Conservative Party is of course a broad church, with supporters ranging from charity-haters who leave comments on the Daily Mail website to some of the most dedicated and idealistic volunteers for and supporters of charity. Among the latter group, there are no doubt many who favour sticking to your knitting – good works for the deserving poor, carried out mainly by volunteers, and nothing political (meaning anything that challenges the government). There are also many who have a better informed and more sophisticated view than that of the role of charities in national life and the formation and implementation of social policy. So it’s no surprise that a good, vigorous debate is going on.
But a bit more clarity and consistency at the top might be welcome. Ministers have rightly intervened to put fundraising regulation on a sensible footing at last, and at the moment the stresses and strains of that overshadow all else. But what is needed as time goes on and the dust settles is a clear message about where the government stands on the knitting question. Is it "charities – know your place"? Or is it "charities – we hear your voice"?