With the next election on the horizon, it’s time to think about the distinctions emerging from this year’s party conferences.
The 2023 gatherings of party loyalists, civil society, big business, and everyone in between are likely to be the last before the election, and their significance is somewhat boosted by the feeling change might be in the offing.
As senior politicians articulated their strategies and visions, keynote speeches brought to the forefront the ideological divides that separate the two biggest political parties. But where did each stand on civil society? Well, there was a stark contrast there too.
In Manchester, at the Conservative Party conference, many noted a sense resignation in the air, with focus on the succession and the direction the party would take following a likely loss in the upcoming election. Despite the low mood, it did not prevent charities being an active topic of debate (or attack).
Former Charity Commission Chair Baroness Stowell used her platform to say charities should stay out of ‘contentious’ debate. It was an opinion seemingly out of step with her party’s voter base, 63% of whom think charities get their political intervention ‘about right’.
Others used stronger language. Suella Braverman claimed Labour were always ‘aided by their allies in the third sector’ in stymieing her policy agenda, adding ‘all of them bleating the same incessant accusation: Racist. Racist. Racist.’ This was firmly rebuffed by NCVO and Acevo, as well as immigration and refugee charities.
Skip forward a week and Labour descended on Liverpool. There was an obvious sense of excitement amongst delegates at the prospect of ending over a decade in Opposition – buoyed by a positive by-election result in Scotland just prior to the conference.
But, whilst you couldn’t move without bumping into representatives from every charity under the sun, we might as well have been invisible for all the sector featured in Labour’s narrative. In stark contrast to the Conservatives’ attacks, Labour seemed to forget charities existed in their keynote speeches. Instead, Starmer emphasised that Labour is the party of the union and of family life and he committed to keeping taxes low and supporting businesses.
There was no major cause for concern in the rhetoric, but it shows that charities, and civil society more broadly, still have work to do if they want to get a seat at the table should Labour win the next election. All of the speeches on the main stage showed an awareness of the formidable challenges that the next government will encounter; yet were accompanied by a complete lack of appreciation for the role the social sector might play in helping address those challenges.
It was reassuring to hear Lillian Greenwood, newly appointed Shadow Charities Minister, confirm to listeners at a fringe event that Labour respects charities’ right to campaign. But that’s her job.
The party differences on display at this year’s conferences offer a glimpse of what lies ahead in the upcoming election. During the latest NCVO AGM, speakers said they expected so-called ‘culture war’ rhetoric to intensify but warned against allowing it to silence charities. There is still much more clarity around policy to come from all parties, but manifestos are likely to be very light, particularly on charities and the social sector.
Regardless of how you expect the next election to play out, there is one similarity between the two parties this time around – charities will have to speak up clearly and confidently to cut through to either.
This blog was co-authored with Jo Gibbons, SMK associate.