(This blog first appeared on civilsociety.co.uk, and is available HERE)
The progress of Jeremy Corbyn to a seemingly unassailable lead in the Labour Party leadership contest has taken almost everyone by surprise. And the reaction amongst members of the party has been mixed to say the least. It has ranged from jubilation among his supporters, who claim that his rise demonstrates the existence of a new groundswell of support for left-wing ideas; to despair among those from the New Labour end of the party, who have been making increasingly doom-laden predictions about the imminent death of the Labour movement.
I am not going to get embroiled in the debate about whether Corbyn’s rise is a good or bad thing. The reality is that it has happened, and come September 12th he is odds on to be the new leader of the Labour Party. So my question is, what does all this mean for charities?
Charities are obviously affected by the political environment. Many of them deliver public services under contract, others receive government grants, while others devote their energies to campaigning and advocacy designed to influence policy and legislation. Whilst working with the government of the day is perhaps the priority, it is also important for charities to engage with opposition parties. After all, today’s opposition leader may well be tomorrow’s Prime Minister.
Finding an answer to the question of what a win for Jeremy Corbyn might mean for charities is not that straightforward. Unsurprisingly, his leadership campaign (like that of his three rivals) has not been primarily based around his views on promoting philanthropy or reforming Gift Aid. However, we can make some educated guesses.
Perhaps the best way to infer what approach Corbyn might take to charities is to look at where his position on other issues places him within the overall Labour movement and then to look at the history of the Labour Party’s views on charity. I have recently being looking at this exact question in the course of completing a book on the role of philanthropy in the UK today (which is due out later this year), and you can read the relevant excerpt HERE. Considering this history turns out to be quite illuminating.
In terms of Corbyn’s position, I think it is safe to say that he is firmly to the left of the other leadership candidates, and probably to the left of most people within the parliamentary Labour Party. (Whether he is actually in tune with the majority of grassroots Labour members is a question I will leave to others to answer, but his levels of support amongst party members and others with a vote in the leadership election clearly suggest that he has struck some kind of chord). What this means in practice is that Corbyn is an unashamed advocate for state solutions, public ownership, public spending, progressive taxation and all the other traditional hallmarks of the left.
This may mean that he has a different view of the appropriate role of charities than the one we have seen from recent Labour leadership teams. For instance when it comes to public services, the party’s orthodoxy has for some time been that charities and charitable giving are an important part of a rich “mixed economy” of service provision, and that it is entirely appropriate (and even desirable) for charities to deliver services on behalf of the state. However, since the start of the Labour movement, there has been a difference of opinion within the movement about charities, and the positive attitude outlined above is only one point of view.
There is another school of thought within the history of the Labour Party which takes a far dimmer view of charities and charitable giving. According to this view, they are nothing more than an anachronism: remnants of a Victorian approach to welfare which is patronising and dehumanising, and which should be replaced by state provision at the earliest available opportunity.
This viewpoint was prevalent in the post-war years, as the welfare state was created and many claimed (with no little glee) that charity and philanthropy would become redundant in many areas. Aneurin Bevan was a vocal advocate of this view, arguing that the “patch-quilt of local paternalisms” that typified charitable activity was “the enemy of intelligent planning”. (Again, see the excerpt from my forthcoming book for more detail).
This school of thought eventually waned, and the Labour Party’s official attitude to charity and philanthropy softened in the 1970s. However, there are still remnants of the suspicion of charity in the views of those on the left of the party when it comes to questions of public service delivery. Whilst most of the talk is about reversing the trend of private sector involvement, those who advocate large-scale return to state ownership and control (as Corbyn and his followers do) are presumably not that keen on the idea of charities delivering public services either, as it is all part of the same broad trend towards the state commissioning services rather than delivering them directly.
I’m not suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn takes anywhere near as strong a line as someone like Nye Bevan when it comes to the question of charitable versus state provision. However, I suspect that he is far less keen on the idea of public sector commissioning and the promotion of a mixed economy of providers from the voluntary, private and public sectors than many of his New Labour colleagues. Those charities that have put many or all of their eggs in the public service delivery basket might do well to take note.
The other relevant thing we can glean from Jeremy Corbyn’s career to date is that even if he may be ambivalent about the public service delivery role of charities, he appears to be extremely positive about their campaigning role. A lot of Corbyn’s time in parliament has been taken up promoting causes and campaigns, many of which have been led by charities and NGOs, so one can safely assume that he thinks the involvement of such organisations in the political process through lobbying and advocacy is both appropriate and valuable. Whilst this may seem fairly uncontroversial, it actually places him clearly on one side of an important and current debate about the role of charities.
Although charities have been campaigning for as long as they have existed, there has been a growing trend in recent years among politicians and commentators to portray this campaigning role as a new development, and one which ‘inappropriately’ brings charities into the realm of politics. The introduction of the Lobbying Act last year was the clearest sign yet of this increasingly negative attitude towards the role of charities as a critical voice within our democracy, and there continue to be many who claim that charities should ‘stay away from politics’ and ‘stick to helping the needy’, as if the two were somehow incompatible (or even separable).
Unless Jeremy Corbyn had a very major change of heart on taking over leadership of the Labour Party, one would assume that he would be firmly in favour of the right of charities to campaign and advocate, and thus firmly opposed to legislation like the Lobbying Act. He will have seen for himself through the many campaigns he has been involved with where he has worked with charities how vital it is that they continue to have a voice and are able to challenge policy and legislation on behalf of their beneficiaries.
Putting all this together, what do we know? It seems likely that the attitude of a Corbynite Labour Party towards charities would differ from what we have seen in recent years. This does not necessarily mean that it would be less enthusiastic about charities. Rather it might simply emphasise different aspects of their role within society than the ones which have been the focus of most of the policy debate about the voluntary sector in recent times. Charities may just have to cut their cloth accordingly in dealing with Labour under Corbyn.
A Labour Party that was positive about charity campaigning whilst being more ambivalent about charitable public service delivery would certainly be an interesting counterpoint to a Conservative government which takes almost exactly the opposite view. The challenge for charities, if I am right, will be to navigate what would be the widest divide between a government and its opposition for decades.