Monthly Archives: October 2013

Will the Lobbying Bill become a defining moment in voluntary action history?

In a previous blog post for VAHS in January 2013 about predicted charity closures, I pointed out that historically the fortunes of the voluntary sector have ebbed and flowed. I argued that the flexibility and adaptability of the sector was one of its key strengths and that it would reconfigure on this occasion too. In that instance I was talking about financial constraints being put on the sector in the face of cuts and increasing demand, but a new challenge has since emerged.

This article from the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network Blog on the Lobbying Bill contradicts my previous optimism, and reading what detail is available, it paints a bleak picture on what might happen to many NGOs if the Bill goes through. While I stand by my comments on the flexibility and versatility of the voluntary sector, this legislation poses a big challenge to one of the core roles of some organisations. I think it is fair to say that my optimism is dampened, though not extinguished in the face of this new challenge. Hopefully the Bill will be amended to lift potentially severe restrictions on NGOs continuing to campaign for their causes. If not, perhaps a work-around will be found or new organisations will spring up to fill the gap.

Overall, the Bill is a blunt instrument. Initially it was championed as a way for clearing up opaque and complex lobbyists’ activities which have been mired in suspicion of being controlled by corporate interests. A prominent BBC Panorama programme was just one exposé which made it look like a Lobbying Bill was necessary. However, it looks as though instead the Bill may make it harder to hear the voices of organisations campaigning on behalf of vulnerable groups. There are wider implications for voluntary organisations though.

What could the Bill mean for voluntary organisations?

Firstly, I would point to the wealth of voluntary activity outside of the campaigning and lobbying role. Much of the work of voluntary organisations in still in service provision and at least in the short term this work seems set to increase. For a large proportion of organisations, especially at local level, their core role will remain though their ability to communicate about it may be constrained. Because much of this provision is at the local level, this means that small local organisations are less likely to be affected by the terms within the proposed legislation. We do not yet know how local branches of larger voluntary organisations will be treated i.e. whether their local spending on campaigning will count towards the parent organisation’s total.

Secondly, while it is yet to be confirmed precisely how the Bill will require  recording and reporting of lobbying activity, it will mean an increased administrative burden on voluntary organisations. This will cost time and money, increasing the basic running costs of NGOs to whom the Bill applies. This in itself is going to be a challenge for voluntary organisations. Yet higher running costs have the potential to alienate donors who wish as much of their donation as possible to end up helping a cause, and as little as possible to go on paid administration. It could also be the case that the overall effectiveness of organisations is compromised by the extra work required to comply with the proposed legislation.

Thirdly it is clear that the relationship between government and the sector will be changed by the Lobbying Bill. The tone of the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network Blog linked to above shows divisions within the sector but hostility towards the Government. While not every reaction has been phrased in quite the same way, discontentment is widespread.

It has been made clear that the state sees the sector as a servant and not a partner. While it is happy to award contracts to the sector on a competitive basis and work with organisations as it chooses, it expects voluntary organisations to know their place, and via this bill, quite frankly, to keep quiet. In the history of voluntary action this is not particularly new. I see it in my own research on youth clubs. But this approach undervalues voluntary effort and I would go as far as to say, potentially undermines democracy.

The Bill, if passed, will also mean bringing the Electoral Commission in on regulating the activities of not-for-profit organisations. The Charity Commission, in its regulatory role, has faced criticism in the past, and it was the first to cast a critical eye over the political activities of several charities in the 1960s. In response to criticism of charitable funds being used to finance political activity, some more prominent NGOs set up sister organisations not registered with the Charity Commission to carry out this work, Amnesty International being just one example. Under the new system, this would all now be included, possibly on the same balance sheet. Furthermore it is unclear how the Charity Commission and Electoral Commission will work together and what enforcement will look like.

Like many others working in this area I am concerned about what curtailing charities’ ability to campaign in this manner will do, not only to the charities, but to the people these charities exist to help. Therefore, despite my tempered optimism about the sector’s ability to bounce back, I remain concerned. I am concerned about the casualties of such an approach; not only those who benefit directly from the work of large charities and in whose interests NGOs campaign, but the whole of society, which will suffer if public debate can no longer hear the contributions of its voluntary organisations.

I sincerely hope the Bill will not pass without amendments which will allow charities to continue to have a significant voice in public debate. If it does become law, the 2015 General Election will be an important test run in seeing how charities cope with the new regulations. This leaves me wondering: will future historians of voluntary action look back on the Lobbying Bill as a turning point in the sector’s fortunes? Honestly, in some ways, I hope not.

Event Review – In conversation with the Women’s Liberation Movement: Intergenerational histories of second wave feminism

On Saturday 12th October 2013 I attended the above event at the British Library, organised by the History of Feminism Network, in association with the University of Sussex and the Raphael Samuel History Centre. Though not on a topic I research, it appealed to me due to the link with a fascinating oral history project Sisterhood and After and as someone who has been watching feminist campaigns making headway in recent months; Everyday Sexism, women on banknotes, No More Page 3 and end online misogyny to name the examples that come to mind.

The day involved sessions where academics and feminists from the current generation talked with women from in and around the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) on topics such as women’s history, reproductive choices, sexuality, race, class and work.

One of the cross-cutting themes of the day I think I will continue to think about is the relationship between academia and activism, which were often treated as binary opposites. Though some did see activism and academia as compatible, that it was possible to be researching, publishing, teaching and campaigning, there persisted a sense that the two were not fully reconciled. Catherine Hall said that women had been marginalised by the academy as History professionalised and amongst some of the academics there there was some agreement about sexism within the academy today. Perhaps here is where ‘activism’ as outside the academy comes in. I do worry about whether sexism remains and what that means for a woman who hopes for a career in academia.  I am also aware that I would not describe myself as an activist and I think I’ll be pondering this distinction for a while to come.

This debate began in the first session on women’s history and carried on throughout the day. That discussing women’s history came first, with Catherine Hall and Sally Alexander, underlined the importance of history within the Movement past and present, which is why it was so apt to see Lucy Delap of History & Policy as an interviewer in that session. The WLM was described as ‘historically minded’ and some older women described how for them feminism had begun with an exploration of the ‘history of ourselves’. As a historian this session raised lots of questions about memory, identity and history, forgetting, subjectivity, and the role of women in academic history today. Sally Alexander said the issue of women and history was twofold; firstly in doing our own histories and secondly of being aware of ourselves when doing historical work (and of course the link between the two), which I think is a good way to put it in such a brief conversation. I do not have the answers to the questions posed by this history of women’s history in terms of perspective, politics, methods and who ‘does’ history, but this session gave me a way of thinking about my own historical research that I have not really had since the obligatory undergraduate session on women’s history delivered very much from within the academy many years ago.

The ‘intergenerational’ element of the event had attracted me to it in first place as someone whose research looks at young people and touches on generational issues. However, in the event, I wanted to hear more of a conversation between generations rather than younger women asking older women questions. The organisers said this is something they hope to do in a future event, but I felt there was room for more of it in this one. I am left with less idea than I would like of what young (academic) feminists think today about some of the topics up for discussion.

Within the day, I thought I saw the best and worst of feminism. The things that make me want to identify as a feminist and the conflicts which feminism continues to wrestle with. There was a moment of quiet sadness and rage as Denise Riley read out the Urban Dictionary definition of ‘Pramface’, which came close to being a moment of unity, but other than that conflict and tension were apparent. Many acknowledged that in the history of feminism there had been tensions and that listening and understanding had sometimes fallen short of the ideal. Unfortunately this seemed to reproduce itself on the day, and there were a couple of times where I thought people needed to listen more to what was actually said, rather than hearing what, perhaps, they expected to hear. Instead we had some awkward moments where things needed clarifying and restating to people who had already taken offence to something that had been said without perhaps the clearest contextualisation.

Herein lies, to me, both the greatest strength and greatest potential weakness of feminism old and new; the lack of unity and huge diversity that can come under the banner of ‘feminism’. It allows feminism to offer something for everyone, but risks its scarcity of common ground being its downfall. In my opinion, this fluidity, and the conversations about contentious issues are key to the way feminism has the power to challenge social inequalities, but there needs to be an acceptance of disunity and differences rather than an attempt to create common ground where there is none. The call at the end for ‘full feminism’ where ‘no woman gets left behind’ for me, means precisely that, and goes beyond feminism into every issue facing society today.

The tensions in the event; between activism and academia, over intersectionality and over generational understandings of feminism, were awkward, keenly felt by many and left unresolved. I left the event feeling confused, frustrated and hopeful at the same time. I am sure I wasn’t the only one. Right at the start the organisers,  Sarah Crook and Signy Gutnick Allen, remarked that the Women’s Liberation Movement was never a single movement, that it was more like a series of heated conversations. I think feminism today is still exactly that and ‘In conversation with the Women’s Liberation Movement: Intergenerational Histories of Second Wave Feminism’ certainly showed this in microcosm.