The Trouble with Corbyn’s New Year Messages

New Year messages from Jeremy Corbyn bode ill for a broadly based, inclusive, progressive coalition (whether within or beyond the Labour Party) as the way to achieve major reform of our economy and national priorities.

For example, in a new year tweet he says “Let’s make 2017 the year we come together to take on the establishment and build a Britain for all.” So the named enemy is the establishment. If the term means anything, that must include the Queen, the Church of England, other church and faith leaders, the senior ranks of the armed services, the security services and the police, the House of Lords, the Judiciary, senior civil servants, the upper ranks of business organisations and professional bodies of all kinds. Many charities are part of the establishment. Many head teachers across all sectors of education are part of the establishment. Does he really want to “take on” this lot? Might it be that important segments and individuals in this capacious category should be part of the solution, not lumped crudely together as the problem?

Nor is this a flash in the pan. In his scripted New Year Message, he says that he understands why people voting for Brexit didn’t trust politicians nor the European Union because “I’ve spent over 40 years in politics campaigning for a better way of doing things, standing up for people, taking on the establishment….” And no doubt we are given to understand that among “the establishment” that he kept “taking on” was the Labour Government and his own Parliamentary Party against whom he rebelled so frequently.

But it is not only the whole establishment in the cross-hairs. It’s the political system itself. “Every day”, says his New Year message, “I see the political system letting down the people of this country”. The Westminster decisions that, he believes, result in homelessness or low pay and insecurity in the economy, are ascribed not just to bad policies or a bad Government. Corbyn names the political system itself, along with the establishment, as the guilty parties. Not so long ago, in similar sweeping language, he blamed the “failed economic and political model” (see my blog of 14 November 2016 “Corbyn’s sweeping talk post Trump”).

Maybe Corbyn and his advisers have a deterministic vision that popular disillusionment with politicians, the Westminster and Whitehall elite, the political system, the whole establishment and the economic model is an ever-swelling historical tide that will lead a bottom up Labour Party, accountable to its own progressive membership, resembling an unstoppable social movement, to sweep all before it?

There have been so many political upsets that nobody can completely discount another one. But here are some of the snags with this way of thinking.

Firstly, it doesn’t seem to be working yet outside the Labour Party membership. A YouGov poll in December put the Conservatives on 42% and Labour on 25%, the lowest since 2009 and the lowest while in Opposition since 1983. An ICM poll gave the Conservatives a 14  point lead. An Observer poll was better for Labour, but still gave the Conservatives a 7 percentage point lead overall with far higher leads on most subjects including the economy, the EU, Brexit, immigration and (by 37%) terrorism. Moreover, Corbyn should be careful about claiming to understand popular distrust of politicians when according to the same Observer poll he is trailing Theresa May by 16% to 42%.

Secondly, History is a notoriously fickle ally. Nearly all of those who believed that they were riding irresistible tides of history ended up beached and broken. Labour has to make its own history the hard way. Moreover, truckling to populist prejudice, eg distrusting the politicians to a ludicrously unfair extent,  or rubbishing the political system, or the whole establishment, is a risky tiger to ride because that suits a lot of nasty populists of a different political stripe.

Thirdly, if you frame yourself as a campaigner outside the establishment and the political system, you have a credibility problem if you claim to be an effective Government in waiting. Being a good Government requires different skills and temperaments from being a popular campaigner decrying the whole system.What prospect is there of making Government work for more of the people if you describe both the political system and the whole establishment as the enemy? Perhaps the opinion polls are reflecting the perception among the people at large that they want their Government and Prime Minister to be able to work with the levers of power, make the economic and political system work better rather than rubbish it, offer credible solutions rather than a posture of campaigning from without?

Fourthly, there is a problem of vagueness about what to expect of you if you ever win power. If you are taking on the whole establishment, what are you going to do with it? What are you going to do to the judiciary? What are you going to do to the Queen and royal family? What are you going to do with the churches? What are you going to do with our civil service and our armed services, and our security chiefs? And if you are against the political system, what is your alternative political system: is it PR? Is it fewer or more MPs? Is it a removal of some of the checks and balances of the current system? Is it diminishing the power of MPs as opposed to party activists? Is it radical devolution from Westminster down to municipalities and local government? It must be something pretty big if it is the system itself that is to change, just as it must be something pretty dramatic if the whole “failed economic model” is to change, but this creates insecurity and anxiety if we don’t know what it means.

Finally, what if Corbyn is wrong to think that radical change is best achieved by positioning himself and his party as campaigners against the establishment and political and economic system? What if the best way is to construct a broad coalition of different kinds of people of different backgrounds and places across the UK, including people of goodwill in different parts of the establishment, making compromises where necessary in order to win power and use it for the common good? The more that the Labour Party is seen as a campaigning organisation accountable to its own enthusiasts and taking on the establishment and the whole political and economic system from outside, the more difficult it becomes to construct that broader coalition.

Can we hope that Corbyn’s messages by the end of 2017 will be different from the New Year ones?







New Charity Commission appointments: a missed opportunity?

The Department of Culture, Media and Sports has announced three new members of the Charity Commission Board, as reported in Civil Society News of 1 December. They are able individuals who will undoubtedly strengthen the skills on the Board in significant respects. But they do not address the Commission’s current credibility problem with a substantial and influential part of the charity sector.

Laurie Benson is CEO of a media consultancy firm and has excellent publishing experience and knowledge of matters digital. Paul Martin is a former senior staffer in MI5 with security expertise.Catherine Quinn is CEO of a Business School and has been Chief Executive of Middle Temple, Head of Grants Management at the Wellcome Trust and Director of research services at Oxford University.

None of them is steeped in the charity sector. They have some experience as Trustees, but none of them has work experience as staff of a mainstream charity. Managing multi million pound budgets for medical research, or running a Business School, may technically count but is highly specialist. As experience from the staffed charity sector, this is probably less relevant than that of the isolated Claire Dove who is being replaced and who runs a vigorous charitable social enterprise embedded in the community and voluntary sector of the North West.

So one of the Commission’s key problems is probably slightly worse than it was for the previous three years. That is the lack of understanding and rapport with an influential part of the charity sector, that has the lion’s share of resources and staff. Can you imagine a media regulator with no personal experience of working in the media, or a regulator of business with no experience of working in business? When the Charity Commission was modernised in the 1990s, one sign was bringing in Chief Executives and some Board members whose working experience included years of personal knowledge and commitment as charity staff. This now applies, so far as I know, to no senior staff and (with the heavily qualified exception of Catherine Quinn) no Board member of the current Commission.

Why does it matter? Because a Commission lacking that dimension will struggle to eliminate the deficit of respect and confidence that many staffed charities feel towards their regulator. Because a Commission lacking that dimension can put out negative, restrictive and insensitive guidance on participation in the EU Referendum and be surprised by the reaction it received, and then have to hastily revise it. Because such a Commission will be at sea trying to regulate charities’ political activity of which none of them has personal experience at staff level. Because such a Commission will be incapable of offering a calm, understanding, impartial, authoritative voice when issues arise that affect public confidence in charities. Because a Commission that thinks of itself (simplistically) as a policeman will find that successful policing requires sufficient rapport with the community it is trying to police.

The Commission needs to be independent of the Government of the day and of the charity sector. Its job is not be cheerleader for the sector. But its job is to regulate the sector effectively. To do that when hardly anybody in the Commission has ever worked as staff in the mainstream sector is too difficult. However excellent the three new Board members may be in many respects, the failure to address that major problem looks like a missed opportunity. It may make it less likely than ever that the charities with the resources to pay for a regulator will want to do so.

Tony Blair brought his own narrative to British politics

Here is my letter published in The Guardian today:

George Monbiot says that Tony Blair (like Bill Clinton) did not possess a narrative of his own with which to combat neo-liberalism and preferred merely to triangulate among other narratives (The deep story beneath Trump’s triumph, 14 November). Yet Blair repeatedly articulated a narrative in contesting both Thatcherism and Clause 4 socialism. This was that people do not thrive as atomised individuals, but when they are part of a strong society where people take care of each other and seek the common good. He embraced individual effort, meritocratic competition and people’s strong desire for their own families to be successful and secure; but only as part of a society where people could rely on the basics that every person needs if they are to reach their potential.
We may believe that Blair and his colleagues made misjudgements (as well as many good calls) about how best to translate this narrative into policies, and about the dubious compromises they made along the way. We may agree with Polly Toynbee that, scarred by the many dreadful years in the wilderness when Labour failed to attract a strong, progressive coalition, they were too timid as time passed about championing explicitly the strong statist and redistributive elements of their policies, for fear of frightening the horses. But the reason that they won three elections and achieved so many advances for our society is that they conveyed an underlying narrative which combined the merits of a strong society, commitment to the common good and the efforts and aspirations of individuals, families and businesses.
Post Trump, post Brexit, no narrative that departs too far from that synthesis is likely to attract a winning, progressive coalition in future.

Corbyn’s sweeping talk post Trump

Trump’s shock victory is a test of judgement of politicians as they react and recommend a way forward. I have been pondering Jeremy Corbyn’s. One can only welcome his uncontroversial advocacy of “working together, social justice and economic renewal” as the hallmarks of the alternative world for which he calls us to work, but the accompanying analysis is troublingly sweeping and imprecise.

Corbyn says “Trump’s election is an unmistakable rejection of a political establishment and an economic system that simply isn’t working for most people”. But most Americans voted for Clinton – more than have voted for any other President in history except Obama. Most poorer Americans, for whom the economy works worst, voted for Clinton, not Trump. And most richer Americans voted for Trump. “Unmistakable”? Or a more complex than Corbyn suggests?

“After this latest Global wake-up call”, he continues, “the need for a real alternative to a failed economic and political system could not be clearer”. The rhetoric is revolutionary: what is wrong is the whole failed system, not just a particular set of policies or assumptions about how best to make the system work. So people will think he wants a completely different economic system: but what?  Nationalisation of the means of production? Something more like China with human rights? Surely he doesn’t think that changed fiscal and monetary policies, re-nationalisation of the railways and a public investment bank constitute a new economic system?

But it is also the whole political system that he wants to change. What does he mean? The US electoral college system? Representative democracy as practised in the USA, or the UK and Europe? Does he mean the international political order with a relatively weak United Nations? Is he saying that the world, or the UK, should be run by a popular social movement accountable to its members alone rather than the political party system? No more elites? maybe a bit of each?

All this is so unclear that people can think what they like about what he actually means. It puts off those who do not believe in the overthrow of the whole economic and political system and those who distrust sweeping  revolutionary rhetoric. We do indeed need a broad coalition standing for “working together, social justice and economic renewal”. But how likely is such a coalition to be built on vague, revolutionary rhetoric? 

Charity Commission’s exoneration of IEA undermines its own priorities and guidance

In a recent (19 October) response to concerns I raised on 9 March about the IEA, the Commission seems to undermine its own strategic priority to encourage transparency and accountability. It also weakens its previous guidance on what it means to advance education rather than promote a particular point of view or prescription.

A wider issue is at stake: whether charitable status and privileges should be used by certain “educational” think tanks to advance specific points of view and persuade people to form specific conclusions (whether political or economic), which (as the Commission has previously made clear) do not constitute “education” for charitable purposes, whilst at the same time undermining the sector’s recommended standards of transparency and accountability.

In its treatment of the issue of transparency and accountability, a key pillar of its current strategic plan, the Commission’s letter to me does say that the Commission “commends” to all charities that they should publicly acknowledge the source of funding. The Commission says that it has made its views clear to the IEA Trustees, but that is all. They point out that there is no general law compelling disclosure of the source of donations, and the Commission would only direct Trustees to do so in exceptional cases which they judge should not include the IEA. They quote without comment the justifications offered by the IEA Trustees for not publicizing the sources of their donation income. These include that “it is essentially a private matter” (as if the public interest were not involved in charities’ tax privileges) and that most of their donors, if asked permission to name them, would refuse. Yet if Trustees can simply say “it is essentially a private matter” or “donors would be put off”, what is left of the Commission’s strategic priority to promote transparency and accountability?

This is indeed a marked contrast from what the Commission had to say on this exact subject not long ago in its guidance relating to the EU Referendum:

“If your charity does get involved in any political activity connected with the referendum, you should ensure that, during such involvement, you publicly acknowledge the source of your funding so that the reasons for your involvement can be fully assessed. If you do not do so, this could seriously undermine and detract from the quality of your contribution and may attract regulatory scrutiny by the Commission….full transparency about funding is especially important.” (My italics). Now, amidst recurrent allegations that the IEA may have been accepting money from people connected with the tobacco or food industries or being used to promote the views of particular rich donors – why no similar robust emphases or warnings?

The second point I raised in March was whether the IEA’s political activity (as defined in the Commission’s guidance CC9), such as its part in developing the case for the anti-advocacy clause that would prevent charities from using public money to influence Government, Parliament or any regulator, strayed beyond the proper limits of the advancement of education, which is the IEA’s charitable objective.

In its previous guidance on the advancement of education for the public benefit, the Commission states clearly that “Promoting a specific point of view may be a way of furthering another charitable aim, but it would not be education.” “If the purpose of providing information or education is to persuade people to form specific conclusions, then this is not education.” So is it “education” to seek to persuade Ministers and special advisers to adopt anti-advocacy clauses in all Government contracts with charities? Is IEA saying that its research and political activity here was not designed to lead to a particular conclusion? The same supplementary guidance clarifies that the charitable advancement of education involves “researching and presenting information in a neutral and balanced way that encourages awareness of different points of view where appropriate”. I defy anyone to read the IEA’s sock puppet reports and find them to be within that guidance.

In the recent letter to me, by contrast, the Commission advances a more ambiguous definition of what constitutes “education”, quotes a series of general assurances from the Trustees, and concludes that no regulatory action is appropriate. Here again, the effect is to weaken its own previous guidance. Why?

Paula Sussex’s letter of 19 October 2016 to me, and my response raising these further concerns, follow. Here are links to my original letter of March 2016 raising these two key concerns, and to my critique of the IEA’s sock puppets report:

Paula Sussex’s letter of 19 October 2016:

Dear Andrew
The Institute of Economic Affairs (235351) (IEA)

I am writing further to your email dated 9 March and our update of 15 July to let you know the outcome of our enquiries into the concerns you raised with us about IEA. I am sorry that we have not been able to respond fully before now, but we have been in continuing dialogue with IEA.


In the overall context of giving the public confidence in charities, the Commission’s Strategic Plan for 2015-18 sets out our commitment to encouraging greater transparency and accountability by charities.

Whilst the Commission commends to all charities that they should publicly acknowledge the source of their funding, there is no legal requirement to do so – unless it is from a trustee or related party and has conditions attached to it that influence how the charity proceeds.

However, as you may know, the next update of the SORP framework is likely to take effect from 2019 and so in advance of this the Commission is carrying out research across the four charity law jurisdictions covered by the SORP (England and Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland). From May until mid-December we are seeking views as to what changes should be made to improve the SORP and deliver information needed by the general public looking at a charity’s report and accounts. One of the topics within the charity regulators’ list of research topics that we are seeking view on is who funds a charity and whether this should be disclosed in the accounts.

If you would like to comment, the closing date is 11 December (Email to The consultation paper can be found at:

If agreement on disclosure was agreed, the earliest we would see the results is late 2020 when 2019 accounts are filed.

Therefore, in the absence of any legal requirement to disclose, we would only consider requiring the trustees to disclose details of their sources of income in the context of individual cases. In doing so, we would take into account risk and the nature of our concerns. Where, for instance, the funding was inappropriately influencing the way that a charity operates, we might well have grounds for requiring disclosure about its sources of funding.

Nevertheless, we do consider that a charity should be transparent and accountable to their stakeholders. This means providing them with relevant and reliable information in a way that is free from bias, comparable, understandable and focused on stakeholders’ legitimate needs. This, therefore, should be the starting point. However there will be individual factors to consider in each case, including the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998 and the wishes of donors. The decision is for the trustees to make – except in exceptional circumstances the Commission cannot direct the trustees to reveal the source of their funding.

IEA has explained that it does not place a record of the source of its donation income in the public domain for three reasons:

 the trustees judge that to disclose the identity of a donor would require their permission, and that this permission would be unlikely to be forthcoming in the majority of cases;

 the charity regards donations to charities as essentially a private matter; and

 the charity tells us that it is regularly attacked by individuals and organisations (including personal attacks) who disagree with its research output.

It says that it would take a different approach if it received public funding.

We have made our views known to IEA and will reiterate them when we send our closing letter. However, we have no grounds to insist on disclosure of donors and we do not consider that it would be appropriate for us to take regulatory action against the charity in respect of its decision not to identify the source of donations.

Whether in respect of specific and contentious campaigning and lobbying activity the IEA has been acting properly within its charitable objects.

Although you say that a charity cannot promote a particular view of economics, the position is actually more nuanced than that statement implies. As an educational charity, IEA’s work overall must present an educational, and not propagandist, perspective. Its purposes can be pursued as a legitimate and recognised (that is non-controversial) branch or aspect of the learning of economic or political science. This learning may have a particular perspective which might border on, or be seen as, consistent with a political perspective. Provided the perspective can properly be regarded as a legitimate aspect of learning in the subject matter, this may be acceptable, as would an approach to the subject from a free market economy perspective. There is also no legal rule that a
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charity of this kind (provided it is approaching its work within the rigours required of an educational charity) cannot be involved in subjects which are controversial in this sense.

From our own research, we have not found any evidence to suggest that IEA has compromised its independence and neutrality such that it would conflict with our guidance on political activity and campaigning1.

IEA is very strongly of the view that it is independent of all political parties and this is borne out by what IEA says about fulfilling its objectives on the ‘About us’ page of its website2.

The trustees have explained that IEA takes opportunities to impact public debate through reaching policymakers, opinion-formers and the wider public and that placing economic research in the public domain furthers IEA’s educational objectives and, as part of that work, it occasionally meet politicians and their advisors. Its programme of activities is designed entirely and exclusively to meet IEA’s charitable objectives.

The trustees are very clear that IEA is not and never has been a campaigning organisation and do not have an agenda beyond research into the economics of markets in which individuals can make free choices, and the dissemination of ideas thereby generated.

The trustees have also explained that IEA does not accept commissioned research projects from corporations. Its publications programme and its content is set by IEA staff under the general direction of its trustees. While IEA does accept direct funding for research from individuals and charitable foundations for research papers, these are typically acknowledged in the publication. Any corporations who donate funds to the IEA to support its work are not asked to comment on its research and no company is able to guide IEA’s research conclusions.

The trustees have assured us that individuals, foundations and companies donate money to the IEA for their own reasons and IEA’s role is to ensure that it is “blind” to these reasons and to only use funds these to support its charitable objectives. The trustees have told us that the trustees take considerable efforts to ensure that whatever the source of funding, IEA’s research is independent.

The trustees have explained that if IEA comments on political policies, it would only be in the circumstances where such a policy aligned with its charitable objectives. The trustees have been clear that IEA neither engages in policy engineering, does not engage in campaigning nor does it accept Government grants or accept commissioned research from Government.

1 Speaking out: guidance on campaigning and political activity by charities (CC9)

2 “The IEA is an educational charity (No CC 235351) and independent research institute limited by guarantee. Ideas and policies produced by the Institute are freely available from our website for any individual or organisation to adopt, but we do not “sell” policy. The Institute is entirely independent of any political party or group, and is entirely funded by voluntary donations from individuals, companies and foundations who want to support its work, plus income from book sales and conferences. It does no contract work and accepts no money from government.”

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The only sponsored research IEA accepts is from individuals or trusts who do not have a vested commercial interest in the topic under discussion. The sponsorship only goes as far as suggesting topics, not the contents of the paper or other research output. Most of IEA’s research is commissioned independently by its Academic and Research Director on the advice of IEA’s Academic AdvisndrewAory Council, whose members are listed on its website under ‘Advisory Council’ and most of its publications are peer-reviewed.

In the light of this we are of the view that there is no appropriate regulatory action for the Commission to take on this issue.

I hope this is helpful to you. Please do not hesitate to contact either of my colleagues, Neil Robertson or Anthony Blake if you would like to explore any aspect further.

Yours sincerely

Paula Sussex Chief Executive

Andrew Purkis’ Reply to Paula Sussex, 31 October 2016:

Dear Paula,

The Institute of Economic Affairs (235351)(IEA)

Thank you for your letter of 19 October, and for the continuing dialogue that you have conducted with the IEA as a result of my original letter of 9 March.

I understand why the Commission is reluctant to take regulatory action or substitute its own views when the Trustees of a charity take decisions in good faith about how best to pursue their charitable objectives. It is no good trying to exceed the powers allowed to the Commission by Parliament and the courts.

Within that framework, however, it seems desirable for the Commission to be consistent in the strategic direction, substance and strength of its guidance on important issues.

The first issue raised in my letter was about transparency and accountability which, as you say, the Commission has rightly made one of its core strategic aims. In your letter you say that the Commission “commends” to all charities that they should publicly acknowledge the source of their funding. You make clear that you have made the Commission’s views known to the IEA but nevertheless do not feel able to do or say publicly anything more about the IEA Trustees’ frequent refusal to identify where their money comes from. This gives rise to three concerns:

  • This seems a considerably weaker positioning and tone from the guidance to charities contemplating involvement in the EU Referendum campaign, when the legal constraints on your ability to act were just the same as they are now. In that guidance, you said: “If your charity does get involved in any political activity connected with the referendum, you should ensure that, during such involvement, you publicly acknowledge the source of your funding so that the reasons for your involvement can be fully assessed. If you do not do so, this could seriously undermine and detract from the quality of your contribution and may attract regulatory scrutiny by the Commission….full transparency about funding is especially important.” (My italics). Yet no similar warnings are articulated in your letter about the un-transparent funding of the IEA’s contentious political activity. This can and does give rise to damaging public perceptions (whatever the intentions of the Trustees) that charitable status is being used to advance interests connected with the tobacco or food industries or the views of particular rich donors.
  • You quote three reasons that the IEA trustees give for not publicising the sources of their donation income. They are that, if asked for permission to disclose their identity, most of their donors would refuse; that “the charity regards donations to charities as essentially a private matter”; and that the charity is regularly attacked by those who disagree with its research output. You give no indication as to whether or not the Commission regards these as justified reasons. Yet if the trustees of any charity can say “it is essentially a private matter!” or “our donors would stop funding us!”, without any public counter-argument from the Commission, your strategic aim of transparency is surely undermined?
  • You quote the Trustees as saying that “Individuals, foundations and companies donate money to the IEA for their own reasons and IEA’s role is to ensure that it is “blind” to these reasons and to only use these funds to support its charitable objectives”, but you do not take the opportunity to point out that this view is problematic for public confidence in charity. It is part of the duty of Trustees to be alert, rather than blind, to the motives behind substantial donations and to the very damaging perceptions that can arise if independence is perceived to be compromised.

In these three ways, your letter seems unfortunately to weaken the Commission’s previous strategic determination on the subject of transparency and accountability.


The second issue in my letter concerned the nature of the advancement of education as a charitable objective. Has the IEA’s political activity (as defined in CC9) strayed outside it? Here again, I believe your letter advances a less robust position than previous Commission guidance. You now say that it is enough if the contribution is not “propagandist”, if it is a legitimate and recognised branch or aspect of the learning of economic or political science, and if, albeit from a particular perspective, the work is “within the rigours” of an educational charity. On the basis of this, plus some assurances from the trustees that appear to be taken on trust, you decide that there is no appropriate regulatory action to be taken. Surprisingly, you do not offer any analysis of, or even mention, the specific example raised in my letter of the part IEA played in the birth and development of the anti-advocacy clause affecting charities in receipt of Government funds.

Yet the Commission’s supplementary guidance on the advancement of education for the public benefit states clearly that “Promoting a specific point of view may be a way of furthering another charitable aim, but it would not be education.” “If the purpose of providing information or education is to persuade people to form specific conclusions, then this is not education.” So is it “education” to seek to persuade Ministers and special advisers to adopt anti-advocacy clauses in all Government contracts with charities? Is IEA saying that its political activity here was not designed to lead to a particular conclusion? The same supplementary guidance clarifies that the charitable advancement of education involves “researching and presenting information in a neutral and balanced way that encourages awareness of different points of view where appropriate”. I defy anyone to read the IEA’s sock puppet reports and find them to be within that guidance.

This issue runs deep. It concerns whether charitable status and privileges should be used by “educational” think tanks to advance specific points of view and prescriptions (whether political or economic) under the pretence that they are not promoting a specific point of view and not persuading people to form specific conclusions, whilst at the same time undermining the Commission’s important strategic aims regarding transparency and accountability. I urge the Commission to grasp this nettle. I am afraid your letter tries to avoid a clearer resolution of this issue by introducing greater ambiguity and less precision than your previous guidance.

Thank you for any consideration that you feel able to give to these further concerns.

Yours sincerely,







Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti and Party Politics

Shami Chakrabarti’s rapid promotion by Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour’s shadow Attorney General has implications for Liberty, the human rights organisation of which she was an inspirational leader; and for charities and other independent voluntary organisations.

Chakrabarti left Liberty in March 2016. In May, when she took on the investigation into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, she announced that she had become a member of the Labour Party. Having published the report in July, she accepted Corbyn’s nomination as a Labour Peer, announced in early August, and has now in early October joined his shadow Cabinet. She was fully within her rights to take these decisions. Although I do not know her, I have no doubt that she intends to use her new position to continue her brilliant campaigning for human rights.

Nor do I believe that she was motivated by party politics throughout her time as Director of Liberty. I assume she was highly professional, independent and dedicated to the cause. She has given Governments of all shades a hard time when necessary. Knowing this in her heart, her purpose now is no doubt to bring the same independence of spirit and commitment to the special role of the (shadow) Attorney General with its independent judicial responsibilities. All these may be facts. The problem is perceptions, which are also part of reality.

For Chakrabarti did not allow much of a purdah period after stepping down from a very high profile voluntary organisation, funded by both charitable and non charitable sources, before embracing Labour. So what are the perceptions likely to be? That she was not really free of party political bias all the time. That she was all along part of a (very) left wing part of the metropolitan elite. That this is further evidence that campaigning by allegedly independent charities or other voluntary organisations is a cover for a distinctly left wing world view with strong connections to the Labour Party, frequently antagonistic to the purposes of a Conservative Government elected by the people.

We know that these perceptions matter. They result in the CAF finding that well over 60 per cent of Conservative MPs think that charities should not campaign against Government decisions. They fertilise the threats of Ministers and set the climate for lobbying bills and anti advocacy clauses. They percolate through to the Charity Commission’s appointed Board members and their repeated failures to support the advocacy role of the sector as a valuable part of public decision-making.

Such visceral party political perceptions count for a lot more than many of us professionals would like.

Message to retiring Chief Executives of high profile charities and other independent bodies out there: when deciding how soon, and how prominently, to embrace a party political role, spare a thought for public and political perceptions – of the organisation you are leaving, and of the charity and voluntary sector. Your choice matters.


Rob Wilson’s Anti Advocacy “Principle” is Phoney

Rob Wilson MP, Minister for Civil Society, has told Third Sector magazine on 15 September, on the subject of the anti advocacy clause, that: 

“The Cabinet Office has been listening and talking and looking at what to do next, and I think that the principle that taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be used to lobby for more taxpayers’ money is a very good, strong and honourable one,” he said.

Such a “principle”, however, is phoney. If it is being dusted off as a way of saving face for Cabinet Office Ministers, who have put their original, dreadfully drafted anti-advocacy clause on hold, it deserves robust challenge.

Every day of the week, taxpayers’ money funds civil servants who advocate for the interests of their Department. It is part of their job in Whitehall to lobby for more Government attention – including resources – to pressing needs in their subject areas. It may be for an area like Northern Ireland, or Wales. It may be for Defence or security against terrorism. It may be for new sources of energy, or the needs of battered women, or tackling Modern Slavery, or even, we hope, strategic investment in a flourishing civil society. It is a very good, strong and honourable principle, and time-honoured practice, that taxpayers’ money should be used in this way as part of good government. Rob Wilson’s “principle” falls apart.

It is also perfectly reasonable and common for taxpayer-funded Departments including their Ministers to press for more resources for their own Department or Division within it as part of this process for resolving competing priorities.

If it is normal and OK for the Whitehall civil servants to lobby like this, why does it suddenly become unprincipled if Government-funded charity staff make a case for better-funded services for their beneficiaries?

It may be helpful to take an example, which I have made up (although there are also such arrangements in real life).  Suppose that Government has funded a charity to provide services to help victims enjoy a better experience of the criminal justice system. Those government-funded charity staff gather in the course of their work a great deal of cumulative knowledge and experience of how the system makes life difficult for victims of crime in different ways and how it could be improved. What sensible “principle” prevents part of discussions with Government or other policy makers being about how additional resources to relevant services might transform things for the better? And why would you not want such knowledgeable frontline workers (funded by the taxpayer) to be fully involved in making the case, or even suggesting how they themselves could make things work better if they had extra resources to do it? Wilson’s phoney principle would, as he has expressed it, stop these conversations happening. Good governance would be the loser. Such examples are legion.

We have wasted enough time already on the ill fated anti-advocacy clause, erected on the flimsy edifice of an ideological polemic by the Institute for Economic Affairs, (see my blog and slipping past over-stretched civil servants and experienced Ministers who knew better. Please, Mr Wilson, do not invent phoney “principles” in order to save face. Better just to acknowledge that someone messed up big time, leave it alone as a blind alley, and move on.

As Clint Eastwood put it, “The only good anti advocacy clause is a dead one”.




Charities’ political activities: a force for good in public life

Evidence to House of Lords Select Committee on Charities

The Positive Role of Charities in Public Policy and Awareness


  1. I am Andrew Purkis, and am a Trustee of ActionAid International and Executive Director of a grant-giving charitable Trust. I spent my career in the charity sector as Assistant Director of NCVO, Director of the CPRE (Council for the Protection of Rural England), Secretary for Public Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Chief Executive of The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and later of the Tropical Health and Education Trust. I have also been the Chair of four UK charities and Trustee of two others. I submit this evidence in an individual capacity only.
  2. I have kept the focus on charities’ role in public policy, and tried to keep it brief. I shall be very happy to furnish more detail or references on request. We are talking here about political activity as defined by the Charity Commission: not only campaigning in the narrower sense but also insider lobbying, presentation of arguments and information, and media work, designed to influence legislators, Government or state administrative decisions and practice. All of that is how charities play their part in the polis. Charities’ political activity must not be party political in nature.
  3. Glancing even briefly at our history, we see that voluntary sector advocacy for what are now charitable causes has had a central role in what most people would regard as progressive social advances. The great agitations to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, and then Slavery itself, set the template for many more agitations for justice and moral improvement in the years to come, with both religious and secular charities to the fore. To take a few examples, there were the movements for temperance and licensing of drinking; for animal welfare; for the rights of children and against the cultural presumption that parents could do whatever they liked with their children; for women’s rights; for equality for gay people; for the reform of prisons; for a dignified life for disabled people; for the proper recognition and support of carers; for protection of the environment and natural beauty, the creation of National Parks and green belts – and on and on. It is the official position of HMG, as articulated by the Minister for Civil Society Rob Wilson, and of the Charity Commission, that this is a very important contribution of the charity sector to our national life – it’s just that the Government confuses this message with others (especially in trying to justify the anti-advocacy clause) and the Charity Commission Board has omitted to mention it at all for most of the last four years, preferring to focus on what they see as risks. It was very striking how negative and discouraging was the guidance of the Charity Commission for England and Wales on charities role in the debate about the EU Referendum, and how positive by comparison was their Scottish counterpart, basing guidance on the same law.
  4. Open your newspapers today. Many topical issues have been placed there wholly or in part by long term political activity by charities. Inequality. Tax avoidance. The Living Wage. The 0.7 per cent of GDP devoted to overseas aid. The housing crisis. Modern Slavery. Anxiety about global warming. The prevalence of domestic violence. Racial bias against ethnic minorities in many public services. Unaccompanied children stuck in Calais. Environmental consequences, and the impact on developing countries, of current subsidies to farmers. The slaughter of raptors by game keepers on grouse moors. Currently, therefore, as well as historically, it is ill-informed to seek to confine the role of charities to practical work and ignore the enormous contribution of charities’ political activity to advancing charitable causes. Virtually every civil servant working on policy and every experienced Minister, every staff member of the Charity Commission and its Chair, and surely every active member of the House of Lords, know perfectly well that this is so. Perhaps some inexperienced SPADS do not.
  5. What is it that charities bring to the process of policy making, historically and today? Here’s a rough list:
  • Bringing the voice and interests of excluded people or minorities into the policy arena, urging a place for them and making the powerful listen
  • Bringing the knowledge, experience and realities of life of users to bear on policy makers who might otherwise be ignorant of them
  • Adding to the strength of a diverse value base for public policy, and complementing or challenging the dominance of commercial or statist perspectives
  • Bringing concentrated knowledge and expertise on behalf of charitable causes to counter the lobby groups of the self-interested and powerful
  • Breaking open the “group think” that can characterise Government or commercial elites, as demonstrated in the study by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe of great blunders of British policy-making
  • Acting as a training ground for participation in public life, as in the case of so many women learning confidence and participation in the Women’s Institutes, or as more recently demonstrated for example in the work of Elsdon and his colleagues from Nottingham.
  1. I believe such contributions are demonstrable and unromanticised. But it is important to recognise the limitations also. Charities have legitimacy, but it is not the same kind of legitimacy as elected representatives of the people. Each charity focuses on its own cause, so someone else has to strike the necessary balance between competing causes, and make arduous compromises that charities may not have to make. Different charities quite often differ from or contradict each other. It’s the IEA as well as Friends of the Earth and ASH, it’s the Countryside Alliance as well as the RSPCA. How could it be otherwise, since the sector is so diverse? Some charities can have their own group think, too. So it is a good thing that public policy is not left to charities alone, but it is nevertheless a core part of the role of many charities to make the polis a more inclusive, better informed and more generously motivated place than it would otherwise be, and in that way to be a force for good in public policy.
  2. From the point of view of charities, there are major reasons why, if they stuck to practical work and service delivery alone, many of them would feel they were not benefitting their cause as effectively as they could:
  • Because excluded or marginalised people cannot obtain their rights without entering and influencing the polis
  • Because external attitudes or events threaten your objects or your beneficiaries, so you have to respond by enlisting the support of the wider public, of state agencies or Parliament itself
  • Because current laws or state practices are often part of the problem for your beneficiaries, and if you are going to do more than scratch the surface you have to try to change them, particularly because the political class may not even understand what the problems are unless you tell them
  • Because sometimes the safety and security of vulnerable communities or people can only be won by the deliberate collective decisions of society, not by practical projects alone. To which we might add, the safety and security of all of us in the age of global warming.
  1. When Trustees are reviewing the effectiveness of their charity, they should therefore ask themselves whether they have the balance right between practical work and influencing others, in order to have the best long term impact. In all the cases cited earlier in this evidence, and many others, effective pursuit of charitable objects involves political activity.
  2. Against this background, it is regrettable that there have been efforts to curtail or discourage political activity by charities in the last few years. This effort has characterised some Conservative Ministers and MPs and the publicly appointed members of the Charity Commission. I am happy to give chapter and verse if requested. The conclusion from this evidence is that political activity in pursuit of charitable objectives is not only a right, more or less grudgingly acknowledged, but a public good. The political activity of charities is a positive gift to the polis. Without the contribution of civil society, the Man in Whitehall does not necessarily know best. The Minister and the elected representatives of the people do not necessarily know best. The SPAD certainly does not know best. They – and society collectively – need the diverse, sometimes even conflicting experience, knowledge, values and passion of the charity sector to be part of the collective decision making process, if society is to progress and public policy to be as inclusive and sound as it can be.





Andrew Purkis,

September 2016.


Should “Philanthropy” belong to the Rich?

In the UK, “Philanthropy” is now commonly used to refer to charitable giving by very rich individuals.

It originally meant love of humanity, particularly as expressed in practical ways. In North America, the word is still used to refer to the whole field of charitable endeavour, not just giving by the rich. And even in the UK the adjective philanthropic is sometimes used in a broader sense roughly synonymous with “charitable”, as in “philanthropic organisations” or “philanthropic endeavours”. But when people talk in the UK about philanthropy or a philanthropist, they will ususally have in mind the Rowntrees, the Carnegies, the Cadbury’s and their modern wealthy successors. They will be excluding the giving of time and excluding the massed ranks of donors to charity.

For example, the Charities Aid Foundation “Future of Philanthropy” series of publications “looks at the attitudes to giving of 5,795 wealthy individuals worldwide – making it the largest ever survey into global philanthropic attitudes”. And when Rhodri Davies of CAF produced his very interesting historical survey “Public Good by Private Means – How Philanthropy Shapes Britain” last year he omitted altogether, for example, the very important rise of collective philanthropy by millions of people filling in their direct debits – since philanthropy is seen as the domain of the wealthy individual. Sensing that this is how the word will be understood, New Philanthropy Capital goes out of its way on its website to state that although it began life primarily focused on wealthy donors, it now serves a wide variety of funders, charities and social enterprises, shaking off the more restrictive connotations of the P word. Others such as “The Centre for Philanthropy and Charity Giving” get round the issue by yoking philanthropy and charity giving firmly together and avoiding the need to explain the difference between them.

A case can be made for the UK usage of philanthropy as the domain of wealthy individuals (with the twist that what were once individual philanthropic bequests are now often run as Foundations by not-so-wealthy voluntary sector professionals). It is very difficult to raise the overall level of charitable giving in the UK, and increasingly difficult and expensive to recruit large numbers of new donors. For some kinds of large project – a new university building, a church with a small congregation needing refurbishment – raising the money from lots of small donors is not an option. In many circumstances, a good deployment of finite fundraising effort may include trying to get more out of very wealthy individuals, especially in an era of increasing inequality and strapped public sector budgets. A small industry of personal bankers, advisers and specialist fundraisers feeds off the philanthropy of the wealthy, and those cultivating rich individuals have a different job from those of mass marketeers. They need a language to define their area of operations, and “philanthropy” suits them. More important, the warm glow of the P word, with its associations of love for humankind and centuries of admiration for famously generous individuals, is an attractive magnet for today’s wealthy individuals. If they give on the grand scale, they will be rewarded with the cachet of a fine historical tradition, the special status and respect due to the philanthropist. For all these reasons, why should we not just go with the UK usage of philanthropy as generous giving of money by the wealthy?

If we do, we should be aware of possible downsides.

One is that it can lead to some confusion and imprecision if the word is used in different ways on different sides of the Atlantic, and even on this side of the Atlantic; and when there is no clear definition of where generous donations end and philanthropy begins. Still, a sector permanently accustomed to imprecision over the meaning of “charity”,”civil society”, “voluntary sector”, “third sector” and the like can certainly live with one more vague word.

More significant, we are withholding the warm cachet of philanthropy from all those who are not wealthy individuals. Volunteering is excluded. Really big bucks get you into the Pantheon, but not the proportionately larger share of income given by poorer donors. Perhaps charities particularly concerned with the struggle to eliminate poverty, and the injustices associated with growing inequality, will not be the only ones slightly uncomfortable with the appropriation of the P word to entice, cajole and reward the most wealthy?

Do we want to edge equally or more significant aspects of charitable giving out of the philanthropic limelight? Collective philanthropy may be even greater in scale than the rich individual variety. As a rough proxy for much giving by wealthy philanthropists, dead and alive, UK Charitable Trusts and Foundations give out approximately £3 billion per year, a figure inflated by the monster £950 million of spending on charitable activities by The Wellcome Trust. By comparison, according to the NCVO Almanack, donors giving £100 or more per month in 2011/12 contributed £3.7 billion (still about £3 billion if donations of over £1 million are excluded)  and those giving between £25 and £100 per month contributed £3.53 billion (out of a total of £9.3 billion of charity giving that year). The proportion of households making donations in a planned and “pre-committed” way such as direct debits and standing orders rose from 36 per cent in 1983 to 63 per cent in 2008. The share of total donations made in this pre-committed or planned way reached 46 per cent in 2008. Most of this massive, purposeful giving is largely excluded from the narrower definition of philanthropy as a matter for wealthy individuals. The leaving of legacies by those who are not very wealthy is also excluded: £2.2 billion is left to charities in wills every year, at an average value of £18,000.

It is not just the scale, but the type, of giving that counts. The collective philanthropy of many non-wealthy donors can provide a more reliable core of income on which charities can build long term plans. It is usually more constant and faithful than the giving of an individual philanthropist or Trust, and with fewer strings attached. Independence and legitimacy can be enhanced by abundant numbers of supporters. With these features, it has changed the face of the charity sector, of much service delivery  and even of politics since the 1970s.

For example, the cumulative voluntary income of international aid and development charities in the top 500 charities rose from under £100 million in 1976 to £1.3 billion in 2008. The voluntary income of medical and health charities rose from £300 million to £1.4 billion in the same period. The income of today’s 9 leading environmental and conservation groups rose from just over £1 million in 1980 to over £600 million by 2005, while membership of environmental organisations went up from about 750,000 in 1971 to 7 million by 2008. There are many other examples in different subject areas. The salient factor in all this has been the explosion of typically comfortably off, but not rich, people making a conscious commitment to support such organisations regularly as a way of loving humankind and influencing the world around them for the better – a manifestation of philanthropy in the original meaning of the word.

Matthew Hilton and his colleagues from Birmingham University have some fascinating insights into this phenomenon in books such as “The Politics of Expertise” (Oxford, 2013). They suggest that “Individually, citizens have increasingly come to place their trust in bodies of experts better positioned than themselves to make cases based on their values, interests and beliefs.” They have delegated this task to expert NGOs as their “agents”, pitting “their” experts representing their values and concerns against those of other kinds of lobbies and interests. “Members of the public”, they conclude, “have also personalised and privatized politics and acknowledged too that their everyday concerns are better articulated by those with the resources to understand them comprehensively. This is neither depoliticization or re-politicization. It is, instead, the transformation of politics and the re-orientation of state-society relations in an era of technocratic expertise.” This collective philanthropy – where I choose to ally myself with many other supporters of a charity with whose aims I associate myself – has helped transform the agenda of public debate and political action, and diversified participation and inclusion in our democratic life as well as our delivery of services. Should not this kind of transformative change –  and there are other examples in the wider field of charitable giving of time and money – be part of the history of philanthropy, alongside what rich individuals have done?

So next time you read or hear a reference to “philanthropy”, ask yourself if what is meant is the individual giving of the rich, or the broader North American meaning; and, if it is the former, remember how much volunteering and collective philanthropy, as a transformative expression of love for humanity, is being excluded from the warm glow of the P word.

Paying Trustees: Is NPC Thinking Straight?

New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) have published a report (“It Starts from the Top”) about how to improve charity governance. The two most eye-catching recommendations are that it should be easier for Trustees to be paid, and that it should be up to each charity to decide if paid staff should be members of the Board alongside volunteers. They suggest that the requirements of SORP should be extended to include mandatory reporting of key governance activities like Board evaluation and Trustee appraisals, and also mandatory reporting on impact. Are they thinking straight?

It is a punchy discussion paper with some good ideas to debate. I particularly liked the emphasis on Boards not getting preoccupied with avoiding trouble, and having a positive hunger to improve impact. This is timely in the context of much finger-wagging aimed at Trustees. Other welcome suggestions are that Boards should fish in non-traditional ponds for diverse new recruits, and that employers should be encouraged to permit more employee volunteering, regarding being a Trustee as good for development of their staff’s skills, experience and confidence. We can all applaud the idea of more awards recognising good contributions to governance and the wider access to good practice, using new technology more creatively. So far, so good.

NPC are also careful to say that their suggestions are for discussion, that their more ambitious proposals might be piloted and evaluated before wider implementation, and that they are sensitive to the problem of appearing to add disproportionate burdens to smaller charities. They stress rightly that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to improving governance in such a large, diverse sector.

The eye-catching recommendations, however, are poorly supported and skimpily argued, despite the fact that NPC is fully aware that they are controversial.  Making it easier to pay Trustees would have had no impact on the recent controversies that are referenced at the start and end of the report. The rationale used is that it would increase diversity, thereby improving impact in the longer run. They do not produce research or evidence to back up this claim. They say that such payments must not be made to wealthy Trustees, but without defining a limit or considering the pitfalls of means-testing. They do not explore the potential and limits of what can be done to improve diversity without paying Trustees.

More seriously, they do not acknowledge the key arguments against more widespread payment of Trustees, so their presentation of the issue is unbalanced. The key argument is that paying Trustees will, cumulatively and over time, destroy the public (including donor) perception that charity trustees are in it for the public benefit and not for their own gain;  and that volunteer effort, freely given for love, is the animating force of charity: therefore, paying Trustees should be exceptional. NPC say that such decisions should be left to the individual charity, but this misses the point about the cumulative and collective consequences for the sector. At a time when public trust and confidence is under some threat from media attacks, it seems odd to omit this consideration altogether. Is it possible that a one-eyed pre-occupation with “driving impact” has obscured it from NPC’s view?

Next up is the suggestion that some paid staff should more often be Board members, with each charity deciding for itself. The advantage is summarised thus: “as with commercial companies, it ties key people into the governance of the organisation, meaning that they become party to major decisions and share responsibility for success with the Board”. I must say that I am unaware of a significant problem of cases where the Chief Executive of a charity is not party to major decisions and does not share (or indeed feel principal) responsibility for its success or failure. Is there evidence that such cases are at all common? The argument against is summarised as making it easier for Boards to dislodge an inadequate CEO, but that is not the main argument. The main argument is the same one NPC missed before, namely that Trustees should in general be seen to be acting without personal financial gain, and this is messed up if paid staff become Trustees too. Perceptions and possibly actual decisions are also affected if Trustees deciding the budget for pay and working conditions include key beneficiaries from such policies. Think of the larger Housing Associations, the least recognisable as charities: is this what NPC is edging towards for the future of the wider sector?

The suggestion that charities should have to report on such governance activities as Board evaluation, Trustee appraisal, role descriptions of Trustees and induction of new Trustees is an interesting one to ventilate. This is certainly good practice for the kind of model Board that NPC has in mind, driving for impact. But should it be a general requirement, supposing the Charity Commission ever had the resources to monitor and police it effectively? NPC have themselves done work recently showing that one in five charities include the advancement of religion in their objects – a huge part of the sector. Do they expect the average Parochial Church Council or equivalents in other denominations and faiths to be compulsorily reporting on these governance activities as part of “driving for impact”? And for how many modest or local charities would such concepts be operable? The volunteer Trustee ethos may rear its head yet again here: more sophisticated, larger organisations and volunteers may feel no qualms about performance appraisals, role descriptions and the like for their volunteer Trustees, but many others will no doubt feel them to be uncomfortable or inappropriate? Where would NPC draw the line on compulsory reporting?

Compulsory reporting on impact via SORP is also interesting but problematical. There is already a requirement to report on public benefit. If the Charity Commission were ever to have the resources, would it not be more productive to beef up the requirements for public benefit reporting rather than load more issues into SORP? And which charities do not, in their Annual Reports, and other reports to the regulator, report on impact, however imperfectly? Selecting compulsory measures of impact on which charities must report would be the devil of a job, because there are so many different kinds of measures, of variable relevance depending on the nature of a charity’s objectives and chosen strategies. And again we come back to the point that the Charity Commission is skint.

OK, a concise discussion document has its place. It is stimulating to be  provoked. There are some good ideas in the mix. On the other hand, the more far-reaching and contentious the proposal, the more it deserves a degree of careful exploration and argumentation. That is missing here. Perhaps NPC’s next contribution on the subject will be equally bold but less skimpy?