What happens when politics wades into charities?

It’s probably not unfair to say that Baroness Tina Stowell has cut a fairly controversial, and apparently quite “political” figure as the Chair of the Charity Commission.

A Conservative minister as recently as 2016, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport selected Stowell to be the new chair of the Charity Commission in 2018. However at their interview of Stowell the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee unanimously refused to endorse the appointment due to “a complete lack of experience” and a lack of “any real insight, knowledge or vision”. Ouch.

Since then she’s said all sorts of things that have riled up voluntary sector types – including back in October when she was accused of attacking “lefty lawyers” in a “patronising” keynote address at the Charity Law Association conference.

Leave it out

The latest instalment in this regulatory soap opera concerns an op-ed for the Mail on Sunday, which appeared at the weekend under the headline:

If you want to improve lives through charity, leave political fights out of it, writes Charity Commission chair BARONESS STOWELL

Writing in a slipstream of concern about culture wars in general and the National Trust in particular, Stowell used the column to argue that charities should stay out of “party politics and the culture wars” – because “whoever is tempted to use charities as another front on which to wage broader political struggles should be careful”, and because, apparantly:

Many people seek out charities as an antidote to politics, not a continuation of it – and these people have the right to be heard too.”

The National Trust? It has found itself under fire both for an initiative exploring the LGBTQ heritage of buildings, and another exploring the histories of colonialism and historic slavery in the properties it looks after. The latter work has generated headlines like “Woke virus infects the National Trust”, with quotes like this:

It is encouraging volunteers and staff to ‘take time to educate themselves’, insisting that there is ‘nothing political about fairness and respect and serving the whole of society’, as though they haven’t been fair and respectful to date.

Assuming the role of a sanctimonious, long-suffering teacher of a class of five-year-olds, it maintains that ‘systematic bias and racism are everyone’s business’. Dedicated volunteers could take offence at this covert slur.”

Cross purposes

The commentary on Stowell’s blog was as you might expect. Many in the wider voluntary sector were quick to question whether she had even read the Commission’s own guidance, which makes clear that a charity can engage in political activity and campaigning providing it is done in support of its charitable purposes.

Andrew Purkis, a former commission board member, wondered how charities with clear aims could respect the view of everyone. One example he highlighted in a tweet was the idea that a domestic abuse charity should respect the view of individuals who engaged in violence against women.

Rhodri Davies, head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation, also said it was “ludicrous” that charities needed to exist on both sides of every argument. He tweeted that the idea that charities somehow need to exist on both sides of every argument to avoid upsetting some portion of an imagined public is “ludicrous”.

It would be easy – too easy really – to type out several hundred words exploring the circular illogicality or contradictions in Stoewell’s arguments. Of course it is the case that charities from time to time need to spend some of their resources tackling the root causes of the issues they relieve – and that in doing so, their work is often political – even if it’s not party political. If you want to bathe in some of that for half an hour or so, do check out the quote tweets around Stowell’s own slicing out of the MoS piece on Twitter.

If you’re keen to understand where the National Trust is coming from on that “histories of colonialism and historic slavery” work, do check out this page and the video from an exasperated sounding NT Director General.

And to get a flavour of the opposition that’s floating around to this type of stuff, you can also find MoS coverage of a group of more than 25 MPs who have called for the Charity Commission to withdraw the trust’s charitable status because it has, they say, committed to “attacking Britain’s heritage”. The so-called “Common Sense Group” says that:

To attempt to sanitise history is to not only disown all the heroes and heritage it is their mission to guard implicitly, but it is also to deny the reality of what Britain is, and who Britons are.”

Respect and tolerance

It’s not at all clear where all of this will end up, but clearly the parallels with some of the debates about higher education generally and students’ unions specifically are interesting. One of the things Stowell says in the MoS piece for example is that:

For charities to survive and thrive in this environment, particularly after this most difficult of years, it is even more important that they demonstrate sensitivity and respect for everyone.

The line appears to be at risk of suggesting that charities are supposed to “demonstrate sensitivity and respect” even for people who fundamentally disagree with their aims, or even who might wish their beneficiaries harm. The line is also interesting because of the row currently playing out at Cambridge, which in part is centred on the line between “respecting” others and merely “tolerating” them:

The University has no right to demand that we be respectful towards all beliefs and practices: on the contrary, we have a right, in some cases practically a duty, to satirize and to mock them”

Its Council put forward a series of changes to the university’s free speech policy in June, and a group of academics have forced a ballot on a series of amendments – including that the phrase “be respectful of” is replaced with “tolerate”. That’s a potentially interesting avenue for SUs to explore when thinking about how to develop free speech and political diversity policies and codes in the future.

But it’s arguably most interesting because of another tweet from Rhodri Davies:

Charities, including students’ unions, are used to the idea that they shouldn’t be party political. But what happens when politics polarises and astroturfs in such a way as to make what is actually a focus on beneficiaries suddenly look close to a party’s political aims?

Get off our land

Nigel Farage’s new political party, for example, launched its first campaign last week – a pledge to refund 30% of fees for students who have been kept under “house arrest” by coronavirus, with lectures cancelled or disrupted.

Richard Tice, Reform UK’s chairman said:

It is a travesty that university authorities continue to ask students to pay £9,000 a year for a service they are not providing. Students did not sign up for a virtual education.

They are paying for full-time courses to be conducted face-to-face using physical spaces. Thousands of them have also signed expensive, long-term rental agreements fully expecting to be required to attend lectures, seminars and tutorials in person.”

Does the mere fact that Reform UK has come out and prioritised this now mean that students’ unions can’t choose to campaign on exactly the same thing?

And even if this wasn’t about party politics, wider political rows and splits are out there and could be a problem for charities. In that MoS piece Stowell also says:

But what we’ve seen in the past few years is the growth of new divisions which don’t neatly respect party lines. Issues like Brexit; the exercise and limits of free speech; the root causes of inequality; or how best to tell the story of British history. They are all defining politics at home and around the world.

If we take the “leave/remain” split and look at where each group sits on a range of major issue, the “values” split is there to see:

It’s also the case that if not in what they do, or who they do it for, but in how they do it, both universities and students’ unions don’t really sit across the split that’s outlined above. They tend to sit on one side of it.

Does that matter? There are really good reasons why charities in general and youth charities in particular might sit where they do, if they do, on a continuum between the two identities described in that chart above.

But it is also the case that if you are a “leaver” and hold some of the views the chart above suggests you do in good faith, you might be tempted to argue that the special status that universities or charities have is a problem, especially when “your views” aren’t espoused in the way that those organisations are run.

In some ways, the problem that represents for universities is arguably universities’ battle to have, albeit that SUs will want to contribute to it. But for SUs, the question it all raises is whether they are “democratic” not just in structure, but in character too.

Upside down

It may be the case that young people and students are more likely to be “remainery” as defined above, and that claims of indoctrination are getting things the wrong way around – it’s arguably more likely that democratic membership organisations are being led by and responding to their members. After all, anyone can stand to be an SU officer, anyone can vote, and so on.

But given the perception that is now out there, SUs arguably do need to deliberately foster cultures and spaces that can bridge the tension between proudly and publicly having organisational values, and the value of “democracy” holding out the prospect that those values could be challenged, tweaked or changed.

That’s not about the odd definition of “balance” that distorts TV news and gives equal airtime to people who believe conspiracy theories about 5g masts or vaccines. Nor is it about an SU auditing its spend on clubs and societies, and pump priming right wing authoritarian societies in the name of “balance”.

It’s not about telling SU trustee boards that they can’t bank ethically or pursue gender equality in their senior appointments because those issues don’t concern “students as students”. And it’s certainly not, for example, running a campaign that’s pro-racism because one is in the pipeline from newly elected officers attempting to tackle race and racism in the curriculum or on campus.

And anyway – in the end, much of what passes for political commentary about campus culture appears to be trying to regulate what is popular, or cool. Trust me – it would be a very bad idea indeed for governments, universities or SUs to try to regulate what is cool.

But it may well be that the grain of truth in Stowell’s piece is about perception and confidence. That would suggest that as well as being responsive to members and values led, SUs in particular need to be deliberate and careful – both culturally and structurally – to ensure that all students know that SUs are a place where anyone can form groups, challenge orthodoxies, stand for office and even oppose other students’ or student leaders’ dominant beliefs.

They might not have the right to “respect” from other students for doing so, or be as “cool” as others – but unless they’re causing harm, they almost certainly have the right to be tolerated.

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