I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. But I never quite found the impetus to pull together the examples to paint the picture that I thought I was seeing. So, I guess I’d like to thank Chris Rose and some environmental NGOs for giving me a case study. It is by no means the only one, and it is by no means the first. But it has prompted me to get round to writing this.

But I’ll start at the beginning.

Chris Rose is a highly respected campaign strategist. He has a newsletter that he sends out every now and then, and lots of environmental activists around the world, NGO campaigners and the like, subscribe to it. In his most recent one, he writes about how many of the big environmental groups haven’t been campaigning against the sale of Britain’s publicly owned forests – as previously highlighted by former Friends of the Earth bosses Jonathan Porrit and Tony Juniper. Among various interesting comments about the speed of online campaign groups like 38 Degrees in leading this campaign, he makes a more serious claim. He says that:

“They (the large environmental NGOs) met with government officials and told them that they might be prepared to take on some discarded government assets – both ‘forests’ and nature reserves (from the dismemberment of the agency Natural England) but at a price. They simply lacked the resources to do it alone. As reported in The Independent the large NGOs had been privately trying to bargain with the government about the terms of a partial take-over since last autumn, and, I’m told, had agreed amongst themselves to keep quiet about it.”

Yes, you read that right. One of Britain’s most senior environmental activists is claiming that the reason big environmental NGOs didn’t campaign against the privitisation of forests is that they were considering being the people to whom they were privitised.

And, once you are done spitting with rage over this, you can see the dilemma. If you believe that the privitisation of the forests is inevitable, then you want to make sure that it is someone who cares about forests who ends up running at least some of them. You don’t want it to all be sold off to a logging company. If you rock the boat too much, you reckon there’s no way that this will happen.

And it isn’t just forests. As I said at the beginning, it’s been pretty clear that similar calculations have been made elsewhere. Let’s look, for example, at Action for Children (formerly NCH). Action for Children are a massive charity working on child poverty. According to their website: “Action for Children supports and speaks out for the most vulnerable and neglected children and young people in the UK”.

They have a team of staff who campaign (‘speak out’) on things. So, what are they campaigning on at the moment? You’d think they might think that massive cuts to care budgets, to the EMA, or maybe to housing support – cuts which will destroy the lives of young people across the UK – you might have thought these cuts might be on their radar.

Well, a quick hunt round their website reveals not one word about these cuts. They are currently campaigning for emotional wellbeing to be a priority. Now, I’m sure that emotional wellbeing is important. But, erm, people are going to die because of these cuts, and young people are among the first against the wall. Is this incompetence? Quite possibly. But it has to be more than that.

Because like the Environmental NGOs, Action for Children have seen cuts and privitisation which will destroy the lives of those that they are meant to protect, in some cases, end the lives of those that they are meant to protect, and they have spotted an opportunity. The care homes and care work that is being cut and privitised has to go to someone, and they are ready to take it on. Or, perhaps, I should be fairer. What they spotted was the same dilemma: If the big children’s charities allow the contracts for care work to go to the massive corporations who will run these services to absolute minimum standards, and likely into the ground, then they will be failing in their duty to protect these care homes. If they campaign, then they may well be less likely to get the contracts for these services. On the other hand, campaigning is the only way that they could potentially prevent these policies which will invariably lead to lower service levels no matter who gets the contracts, because the funding is being cut massively. It’s a difficult decision. But it is, of course, always easier to choose the path that brings funding to your increasingly cash strapped charity.

I’ve given these two examples. But you can look at many more. There are noble exceptions. But those who claim to represent the interests of people who rely most on public services were often co-opted by Labour into the provision of these services, and many of them have always provided those dual roles – service and representation. And now they are being shut up and bought off.

And when we talk about the Big Society con trick, I think people too often miss this part of it. It is not the belief that volunteers will step in that causes the problem. Surely no one seriously believes this? It is the risk that the voluntary sector will be slip into a position where it fails to defend those it claims to represent in the hope that they will temporarily get to be the organisations who receive the (massively cut) funding to deliver the (much poorer) service.

But last night, we discovered something else. Because, the old environmental NGOs hadn’t managed to stitch things up. More than half a million people signed a petition through 38 Degrees to Save Our Forests. And the government U turned. If the NGOs thought that the privitisation couldn’t be stopped, they were wrong. And the voluntary sector must learn that short term funding may be appealing, but a Victorian Britain where charity was the only relief from the injustice of poverty is what they were created to oppose. And by buying into it, they risk the gains of a century of campaigning.

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.