The truth about giving

Observations on Charity

Charity is what the rich offer the poor, isn't it? And charities are their vehicles.

But research released at the annual conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) on 20 February shows that the social divide between rich and poor thrives in the world of giving. There's a higher density of charities based in affluent areas than economically disadvantaged ones, it has found.

Prosperous districts such as Wokingham, Surrey Heath and East Dorset have the largest number of charities per person in the UK, almost three times as many as those in poor communities such as Easington or Corby - the latter the constituency of the charities minister, Phil Hope.

Hull, one of the most deprived districts in England, has the fewest charities of all, at 0.58 per thousand.

"If there are fewer charitable activities and one takes that as a proxy for less civic engagement," says the NCVO chief executive, Stuart Etherington, "poorer communities are less able to organise themselves to make demands on the system and state."

Wealthier areas, he argues, are full of people who can help themselves, while groups in poorer districts are limited in power and capacity. Tax breaks, fundraising advantages and formal representation are denied to communities where there is a dearth of charities.

In Hull, where the collapse of the fishing industry has left a generation with low aspirations, Josephine Roper runs the charity Pooh Bear to give one-to-one reading help to children, with a staff of two. Some of the wards she serves record 35 per cent illiteracy among adults. "Lots of the children we work with come from homes where education isn't valued and there are no books," she says.

But there is less charity cash washing around Hull than Wokingham. "It's not worth fundraising around here because people don't have that kind of money to give," says Roper. Corporate donations from local businesses - a fertile income stream for charities - don't spring in a stagnant economy, she adds. She doesn't have the time or staff to fundraise anyway.

Charity experts are not surprised at the findings. "Being involved with a charity involves having spare time," says Kevin Curley, chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action. "To run a charity as a volunteer you need resources - a phone in your house, time, organising ability."

"It's also knowledge," says Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive at the Directory of Social Change. "If you come from an affluent area, you're more likely to know there are such things as charities and that you can register as one. If you're from a poorer area, it's more likely to be 'John and Mildred down the road are in trouble, their kid's into drugs, let's get together a community group'."

Many unregistered charities operate below the radar of the Charity Commission: self-help groups, residents' groups, tenants' associations, teams of mums who bus toddlers to nursery. But it's not easy - trustees of small groups can risk personal liability as well as missing out on available funds.

"You can't assume charities will be able to deal with issues of equality and social justice without the intervention of public policy," says Etherington, who believes the only solution is for the government to invest in poor areas to make voluntary action more effective.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide