Reflections from a poacher, turned gamekeeper, turned poacher

In 2005 the development charities got the keys to Number 10 – but they still don’t understand why.

Before I was an adviser in Gordon Brown’s Downing Street I sat on the board of Make Poverty History and witnessed from both sides the disagreement among the campaign’s leaders about how they had come to occupy their privileged place in public life.  Their divisions would be of only passing historical interest were the competing analyses not informing NGO planning for Britain’s next G8 in 2013 – and hampering their ability to influence the Conservative-led government they face now.

Labour was responsive to public campaigning not, as some believe, because charity mobilisations ‘forced’ its ministers into doing anything, but because organisations which favoured redistributive spending on foreign aid were always assured of at least a hearing from a social democratic government, particularly one headed by two men with such long-standing interest in Africa.  Added to that was a strong overlap in personnel, with many Make Poverty History campaigners drawing on a background in Labour politics and many government aides being poached from the sector itself.

The extent to which both the issues and the leadership of the campaign enjoyed an open door infuriated some members of the coalition who argued that proximity meant ‘co-option’ – a process which would dilute our demands and derail our strategy. In reality the risk of that happening (and the benefit to the Government even if it had) was always overstated – and is in any event much less important than whether the strength of the relationship bred a complacency which stopped organisations auditing their underlying strategic strength in preparation for a change of government.

Precisely because the Labour leadership never challenged our mandate, the campaign didn’t come to a settled view about whether its power came from being ‘right’ (in both the moral and technical senses of the word) or from being popular. The charity coalition was split on that and while neither side conclusively won the toss, both need to be honest about the vulnerabilities in their argument.

The ‘purists’ who felt Make Poverty History should get its way because of the weight of its moral claims and its technical expertise need to acknowledge that they now have some first class competition.  The increasing stature of development economics inside the academy and the creation of a separate development ministry staffed with the brightest fast-streamers means NGOs no longer have the monopoly on knowing or caring about the poor. Ministers can’t be expected to believe charity campaign officers are automatically more ethical than the DFID civil servants who toil for less pay on the same issues – nor that their policy output is inherently superior to that of Oxford or the LSE.

Meanwhile, the ‘populists’ relied on accounts of public support which were always debatable, with the banner reading ‘You are G8, we are six billion’ and tabloid headline ‘5 billion people can’t be wrong’ among the more memorable examples. There is no doubt that Make Poverty History surpassed any other campaign mobilisation this century in terms of British popular support – but getting one organised subset of the public to wear a wrist band or send an email will not always trump the views of the millions of opponents who may not mount a campaign but whose presence will be powerfully felt during the rolling polling process which characterises modern democratic politics.

None of this is to say, of course, that charity campaigns can never be morally inspiring, analytically rigorous or democratically potent – indeed, they should be aspiring to be all three – merely that they are not inherently any of these things simply by virtue of emerging from the third sector.

This Government has made its overture to service-delivery charities with the Big Society – if campaigning ones want their hearing they will need to do more than flash their civil society membership cards and relive past glories.