As the pre-positioning for next year’s UK election begins in earnest, one strand of the Conservative Party strategy appears to be becoming ever clearer: an attempt to undermine organisations whose campaigns, research, or focus might produce narratives that counter the government’s assertion that we are all in this together. Conor Burn’s attack on Oxfam’s campaign on UK poverty has become part of a broader attack on NGOs, think-tanks and other organisations whose work on poverty, inequality and the effects of government policy sits close to that blurred line where charitable status meets political campaign.
Last week, Tory MP Charlie Elphicke led a debate in the House of Commons on the political independence of charities, having the likes of Oxfam in his sights, but also the left-leaning think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. In relation to the former, he denounced the campaign highlighting the impact of government policy on poverty and inequality in the UK as something that ‘could have been written by Labour Party HQ’. He followed this up with the intellectually lazy cliché of suggesting the NGO misleading ‘the hard pressed pensioner [who] donates to Oxfam … believing the money is going directly to help people in deep need – particularly overseas’ (many of the development-charity supporting ‘hard pressed pensioners’ I know have a better understanding of the politics of poverty that Mr Elphicke seems to display, and are entirely supportive of Oxfam’s campaigns overseas and in the UK).
In relation to the second focus of his attack – the IPPR – Elphicke criticised the Labour Party for out-sourcing its policy-making to the organisation; and highly conveniently fails to mention, in his criticism of IPPR links to the Labour Party, those of the right-leaning Policy Exchange to the Tory Party. Of course, there are great differences between the ‘political’ think-tanks which have always had close personal and intellectual links to whole parties, or elements within those parties, and development NGOs. But by conflating the two under an umbrella of the dangers of partisan lobbying, it becomes easier to attack all targets rather than engage in a nuanced debate.
In Sunday’s Telegraph we had another Conservative MP, this time recently-sacked Minister for the Environment, Owen Paterson moaning about the ‘green blob’ (borrowing from Gove’s own metaphor for those who disagreed with his education reforms): ‘lobbyists’, supported by ‘their industrial and bureaucratic allies’, whose sole purpose is not to improve environmental sustainability and protection, but to ‘enhance their own income streams and influence by myth making and lobbying’. Who are these core members of a Lobbyist-Industrial-Bureaucratic complex, reliant on European grants, representing no-one but their own self-interest, the ‘tangled triangle of unelected busybodies’? Why, it’s those ‘anti-capitalist agitprop groups’, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth!
Now, Greenpeace has come in for some criticism over the past few months, and as campaigning organisations, both (as with any organisation who presents research and analysis on policy and practice) should have their claims and assertions tested and challenged. But their characterisaton here is deeply misleading, and, well, wrong. Patterson is not seeking to engage with their ideas and arguments, but chanting ‘I was right, I was right’ until he hopes we lose the will to challenge him on this. His assertion that green movement doesn’t believe in improving the environment, and only he did, is the political commentary equivalent of my four year old daughter yelling at me, ‘no, you’re wrong!’ and then sticking her fingers in her ears (actually, I do her a disservice – she has moved beyond that: shame the editors of this piece didn’t ask for something a bit more substantial).
Patterson’s article is really about defending a poor record, and as such is a rather unimportant footnote at the end of the government career. Except, what is interesting is the return to the language of lobbying, influence and ‘public funds’ being used (or misused) for political campaigns. Referring to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace as ‘lobbyists’ is very deliberate. It is intended to muddy the waters that separate commercial lobbying firms, or the lobbying undertaken by particular industries for their own commercial advantage, with organisations who lobby and campaign for a social purpose. It will not be long before attacks on Oxfam, or whichever development charity next seeks to campaign on a UK-focused issue, refer to them as lobbyists rather than NGOs or charities.
Ironically, given the current Tory complaints about public money going to such organisations, it was under the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s that NGOs came to be supported with public funds to an ever increasing degree. Seen as a way of bypassing the ‘governance blob’ of cumbersome, corrupt, inefficient and bloated public sectors and governments, and of bringing the efficiency of private (albeit non-profit) sector expertise to bear on issues related to poverty, support for marginalised groups, etc, governments began to channel ever more official aid spending via NGOs. Inevitably, this created tensions between organisations whose very existence was in effect a criticism of the government (for why would such organisations need to exist if government policy was working?), and those governments with whom they were now partners. It was a relationship that would inevitably, and frequently does, come back to haunt both partners: governments of all stripes who get cross at being criticised by those in receipt of official funds; NGOs who feel implicated by their linkage to those governments.
Of course, government attacks on charitable campaigning are not new: remember Thatcher’s furious response to the Church of England’s Faith in the City report when published in 1985? However, they have been given teeth by the so-called anti-lobbying bill which is widely seen as a blunt instrument that fails to distinguish between the lobbying of, say, an oil company, and that of an anti-poverty NGO. But also by what looks to be becoming a concerted attack by Conservatives on any organisation that present a challenge to the government narrative of four years of economic success: charities, think-tanks, unions, etc.
So far the debate has been controlled by the critics of charitable campaigning, focused on the public funding aspect, or the potential misleading of hard-pressed (and presumably hard-working, to borrow another Tory mainstay) members of the donating public. The response needs to focus on the issues: on the illogicality of a politician suggesting poverty, or the environment, or social alienation, are not inherently political; on the pretence that the public-funding of charities is a left-wing policy; on the idiocy of suggesting that anti-poverty organisations can only focus on poverty ‘overseas’; and most importantly, that seeking to inform debates on poverty, environment, etc, is inherently, and must be political.
There are many legitimate and serious criticisms that can be levelled against NGOs: for the way in which they work; on their levels and processes of accountability; on their claims to represent particular constituencies; and yes, on the political influence they can bring to bear. But the current debate is not about challenging some real dilemmas of and facing the NGO sector, rather it is about a political party seeking to limit the scope for public questioning of its own claims.