Tory conference: Charities hardly figured, except at the fringe events, some attended by Rob Wilson

Susannah Birkwood says the sector was not high on anyone's agenda at the Manchester gathering

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson

When Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, announced on 3 October that he would accept all the recommendations made in Sir Stuart Etherington's review of fundraising self-regulation, people in the voluntary sector could have been forgiven for thinking that this would be a strong theme at the Conservative Party conference, which began the next day.

It would not have been the first time that David Cameron had given charities prominence in his conference speech - he began talking about the big society in 2010 and the National Citizen Service in 2011; but in the event, there was no talk of protecting the nation's vulnerable people from what he recently called "rogue fundraisers". Even at fringe events, fundraising hardly got a mention.

Cameron's conference speech instead focused on championing the cause areas of many charities, from social mobility and poverty to children in care and female genital mutilation, so criticism of fundraising may well have jarred in that context.

If fundraising was not on the agenda, however, charities were. There were no less than five fringe events focused on the charity sector as a whole (Wilson was conspicuous by his absence from most of these) as well as numerous others hosted by individual charities, including a debate with the MS Society and a drinks evening with Save the Children.


One sector-wide fringe event in particular showed a side of the Conservative Party with which many in the sector might not be familiar: the party's outreach director, Colin Bloom, told a round-table discussion hosted by the chief executives body Acevo that the party wanted to be "at peace" with the sector. Bloom revealed that he had been arranging meetings between charities and ministers to establish ways in which they could collaborate on their missions, and he intended to continue this work in 2016. He told Third Sector he would have more news to share with charities within months.

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This benevolent stance was echoed by another initiative that was discussed at the conference: a Conservative Friends of the Third Sector group, which would enable party supporters with an interest in charities to share ideas about the issues affecting the sector. The group's founder, the fundraising consultant Nick Mason, told Third Sector he saw a need for Conservatives to be able to speak out about tackling social problems without being shouted down by the left-wing professionals he sees as dominant in many large charities.

One senior sector participant told Third Sector this initiative was badly needed, because animosity from sector professionals had on occasion led the party to feel under attack: the MP Sarah Wollaston said at a fringe event hosted by the Charities Aid Foundation that charities often appeared to Tory politicians to be "like a Question Time audience" - filled with people who were biased against them.

There were also times at the conference, however, when the Conservatives seemed to merit their "nasty party" image. One such occasion was the organisers' cancellation of another Acevo fringe event, this time sponsored by the Muslim Charities Forum, with no real explanation and at only two days' notice, after a Sunday Telegraph article had alleged there were links between speakers lined up for the event and terrorists.

At the replacement event hurriedly organised by Acevo outside the conference venue, Acevo chief executive Sir Stephen Bubb said the decision was an attack on free speech and gave the impression that the Conservatives viewed Muslim charities as "foes".

Sock puppets?

The party also showed its less welcoming side at a fringe event hosted by the Institute of Economic Affairs, called Sock Puppets: Should the State be Funding Pressure Groups? - in itself an unhelpful title for charities keen to highlight the benefits of campaigning. Those attending the packed event were treated to comments such as: "Frankly, now we've got a majority, they can do without our funding";"I avoid giving to charities that have public funding because I feel like I've already given through the tax office"; and "If we had less state-funded quangos, there would be more room at Tory conference because they wouldn't be there, taking up all the space".

Such criticisms in relation to campaigning by charities might have seemed unfair, but might have been influenced by the vitriol aimed at delegates by campaigners of various kinds outside the conference.


The contrast between the verbal abuse outside - which appeared to come mostly from anti-austerity campaigners - and the reasoned debate inside was underscored by an anecdote from the disability charity Leonard Cheshire. Its staff told Third Sector that The Independent journalist James Moore, who uses a wheelchair and attended the conference to lead the charity's fringe event, was spat on by protestors, told he was "betraying his tribe" and accused of faking his disability.

Overall, one got the sense from the conference that many in the party are trying to build a bridge with the sector - while others, be they party right-wingers or various protesters determined to view the Conservatives as the enemy - are hell-bent on breaking it down.

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