Sue Tibballs: So Rob Wilson, just who is being partisan here?

Expressing views about the political and economic system is far from controversial for Oxfam, which was founded with an explicitly campaigning role, writes our columnist

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

The former charities minister, Rob Wilson, hasn’t pulled his punches since losing his seat last year. In a recent Daily Telegraph column, he accused Oxfam of disappearing up its own "morally righteous posterior" for issuing a tweet that said "we have an extreme form of capitalism that only works for those at the top". Wilson added that "the leadership of the big charities must stop being so overtly pro-Left. They must provide balance by hiring Right-leaning people and change their focus."

My first thought is that the fact Oxfam expressed a view about the current economic system seems far from controversial. Oxfam was founded in 1942 with an explicitly campaigning goal: to persuade the British government to allow food through the allied forces’ blockade for distribution by the Red Cross. Oxfam exists today not just to provide relief, but also to campaign for changes in law and policy that prevent people being forced into poverty. It should not come as a surprise that they would have a view on economics.

What is more, what Oxfam actually said about capitalism doesn't seem very controversial either. Many people, of many political persuasions, are concerned about the current economic model, including Prime Minister Theresa May, who has talked often of the system not serving everyone.

What is controversial, however, is Wilson equating Oxfam's tweet with being "pro-Left", and – as he made clear later in his article – of being pro-Labour. This purposeful conflation of being political and being partisan was designed to inflict maximum damage. Rather than just saying he didn't agree with Oxfam – which he made very clear – Wilson suggested to the paper's readers that the very fact of Oxfam campaigning was wrong. He called into question the legitimacy of charity campaigning, as if a charity expressing a view at all was inappropriate, even unlawful.

Clearly not all senior Conservatives think like this. Michael Gove, for example, has recently praised the campaigning work of charities such as WWF. But Wilson isn’t alone, either. He represents a strand of political thinking, influential in the Conservative Party, that charities should confine themselves to providing alms. That they exist not to change the world, but simply to attend to those who are vulnerable in it. This is not just wrong in principle, but is also outmoded in practice. This just doesn’t represent what charities do and, as a former charities minister, Wilson knows that charity campaigning is entirely within the law.

So what is bothering him? It is tempting to think that it is what is being said, rather than the fact of saying it. In other words, he just doesn’t like charities taking a different view to or criticising his government. If this is the case, then isn’t it he who is being partisan in seeking to limit not just the voice but also the legitimacy of charities and other "non-party campaigners" who do not agree with Conservative policy. Are these the same motives that lie behind the lobbying act and the introduction of "gagging clauses"? Wilson is concerned about the relationship between government and the sector: these perceptions certainly don’t help either.

Happily, those who hold this view seem to be losing favour. I know a good number of influential Conservatives – including the new charities minister – who do recognise the value of the voluntary sector’s contribution to democratic debate, policy-making and accountability. It is time for them to distance themselves from these partisan attacks and stand up for the legal right and moral duty of charities to be political – and not party political – in the interests of their beneficiaries. That's the public interest governments are supposed to serve, after all.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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