Conservative MPs are more likely to take a negative view of charity campaigning than their Labour counterparts because so many charity employees are members or supporters of the Labour Party, according to the Tory MP Sarah Wollaston.
Wollaston, who is the MP for Totnes in Devon and chair of the House of Commons Health Committee, was speaking yesterday in Manchester at a Conservative Party conference fringe event about public and politicians’ perceptions of charities, hosted by the Charities Aid Foundation.
She said: "It’s a bit like a Question Time audience," apparently referring to the accusations of political bias made against the BBC programme during its coverage of this year’s general election – The Sun and The Daily Telegraph alleged that audiences were made up largely of people with left-wing views.
She added: "There is a tendency sometimes for an agenda to arise in some charities that is very critical of the Conservative point of view."
Wollaston said she thought this was a shame because the ethos of Conservatism was about social good, but many people had forgotten this.
Recent research from the Charities Aid Foundation and the consultancy ComRes, presented at the event, showed that a third of Conservative MPs thought it was important for charities to highlight where government policies would negatively affect people, compared with 93 per cent of Labour MPs.
Wollaston said the solution to this was for Conservative MPs to get more involved with voluntary organisations and have their voices represented within them.
Also speaking at the event, Katharine Peacock, managing director of Comres, said that while Conservative MPs were traditionally more critical of charities’ perceived political motivations than their Labour counterparts, the difference in the parties’ opinions would be much less stark if Labour were in power.
"Ultimately Labour are out of office – they want charities to be able to speak up because they want that voice," she said.
Another panellist, Caroline Julian, head of the society programme at the think tank ResPublica, said she saw the charity sector’s centre-left reputation as a huge problem. "Doing social good is at the heart of Conservative philosophy, but the way many charities have typically gone about campaigning is via a modern left-leaning philosophy," she said.
Julian said that the chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, had described charities as being of "socialist ilk" and this was a brand the sector needed to escape.
Mark Howarth, leader of the Conservative-run Gloucestershire County Council, said he thought his party’s cynicism towards charity campaigning had come from the instances in which charities had moved away from their grass roots and towards a national agenda, "picking national fights or pushing national messages".
He said: "It’s a bit like politicians really. The moment we get elected, go into our ivory towers and stop talking to our residents is the moment residents will stop voting for us."
Howarth said that in local government there was a nervousness that charities would abuse their "brand advantage" with the public to try to get support for initiatives it was impossible for councils to carry out.