On campaigning charities and political parties

Summary

Why the rise of large non-party-political campaigning charities vis-a-vis the shrinking of mainstream political parties leaves me a little uncomfortable

Seven environmental-related charities and organisations have got together to organise a London-based hustings. (See here). You’ll be hearing of various campaign groups from across the political matrix making their case. Earlier today on telly they had a whisky trade federation calling for the Chancellor to cut tax on their products in the run up to next week’s Budget – the last before the election. Conservative-leaning bodies tend to call for targeted tax cuts in their area of business, while Labour-leaning groups tend to call for more spending in their area of interest. It’s then left to a shrinking group of people from what feels like increasingly narrow backgrounds to decide how to balance the two.

Campaigning for something is one thing. Standing for election & being cross-examined by the public is quite another.

I stood as Puffles at the Cambridge City Council elections in 2014. And the dragon beat UKIP -> 89 votes to 0. They didn’t stand so lost be default. It’ll be different in 2015 as both The Greens and UKIP in Cambridge will be contesting most if not all of the wards at the local elections in Cambridge, which are happening on the same day as the general election. It’s one thing being a paper candidate, but quite another putting yourself out in public to face scrutiny & cross-examination.

Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party's stall in our neighbourhood
Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party’s stall in our neighbourhood

The glamorous side of ‘charity campaigning’ is when you get invited to posh receptions and visits to Parliament. You get the kudos of being the informed, passionate expert – but don’t necessarily have to worry about other issues far removed from your areas of passion or expertise because that’s not in the job description. (That’s not to criticise – this is to compare it to standing for election). When you’re standing for election – as I found out – you’re expected to have an opinion on everything. Should that opinion be found to be uninformed, a potential firestorm awaits. Whether it’s someone fact-checking in real time to an opponent creating a straw man to knock down (taking you down in the process), you find yourself in a situation where you’re expected to be knowledgable & informed where few others are.

But how many of us get to be in that position of being that reasonably well-paid full time campaigner where we’re attending all of these ‘Whitehall-and-Parliament-facing’ events? One of the criticisms of such charities and campaign groups made by Big Issue founder John Bird was that too many highly paid executives of such charities and groups had no experience of being dependent on the work of the charities they ran. (See here).

“Aren’t campaigning charities & groups popular because they are successful at achieving policy change?”

To an extent yes. At the same time it reveals a relative failure of political party members to secure policy changes & impose them on their party leaders. The stereotype is that Conservative grassroots is more politically right wing than its leadership, and Labour’s grassroots more leftwing than its leadership. However, if a party has ambitions for government, it’s got to reach out beyond that core vote. Hence having to make compromises there. Furthermore, given outsourcing & privatisation of the past 30 years – along with globalisation too, the power that parties in government used to have no longer exists. Take house building. The state is entirely dependent on the private sector to build homes. So if achieving policy change isn’t going to come from political leaders that ignore their members, what’s the alternative?

Hence why some have set up organisations

The well-trodden path is this:

  1. set up an organisation
  2. hire some offices in Westminster within easy reach of the institutions you want to influence
  3. find out who works where – ie map the people inside the institutions
  4. organise an event at somewhere nice
  5. invite people from the institutions you want to influence to said event
  6. be very nice to invitees at said event
  7. organise informal coffee/meetings
  8. become an independent stakeholder on a policy group

…and then you are inside the system. Repeat, only this time with the media. Friends in politics, friends in the media…this in part is how corporate lobbyists work. Charities and campaign groups picked up on this and have copied such tactics. Whether this will remain successful in years to come in social media world (& in the context of growing wealth inequalities) remains to be seen. Not least with nominally public events inside ‘the bubble’ now accessible to a much wider audience – whether through eventbrite/meetup or through people live-tweeting on a hashtag.

A big advantage of party backing

It’s all too easy to forget this, but other than having fellow party members campaigning for you, you also have the benefit of someone else with similar values to you having done the research. When it comes to manifesto time, it’s reasonable to expect that the policy experts in your party have done the research to withstand detailed scrutiny.

The route to Parliament – via campaigning charities.

A number of social justice charities, campaign groups and think tanks are fairly well known as being on the path that politicians tread during their rise up the political ladder. Lisa Nandy MP at Centrepoint (homelessness), Dr Stella Creasy at the Scout Association, Jack Straw’s son Will (who is standing for Parliament at this election) at the IPPR Think Tank are a few examples from Labour. This inevitably raises criticisms from party political opponents that this sort of activity is a subsidy. They think that charities should be restricted to providing relief to those in need rather than campaigning on the issues that create that need in the first place. Recall the quotation:

“When I give food to the poor they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist”

It’s not as simple as saying “You’re all cowards for not standing for election!”

As has been raised by a number of people, the barrage of hatred that women in particular have to put up with for even expressing an opinion is more than enough to put too many good people off from politics altogether. It’s only fortunate that more people feel confident enough to call such behaviour out – most recently a national newspaper super-imposing the head of Scotland’s first minister (Nicola Sturgeon) onto a bikini-clad model recreating an image from a pop video of a couple of years ago. Some might say ‘grow a thicker skin’, but if such behaviour is putting off talented people from engaging in politics & policy – to the detriment of our democracy, how can that be in the public interest?

Barriers to standing for election

That’s before you’ve considered the sacrifices you have to make with campaigning. At the Women of the World – Cambridge festival at the weekend I discussed this with a number of women, including one – Anna Smith, who is standing in the neighbouring Romsey ward in Cambridge. Campaigning becomes a full time job in the run up to an election. But how many people can afford to take the time off work to campaign? How many have sympathetic employers who will allow this?

Should we have a maternity/paternity leave style system for people who stand for election?

I don’t know how this might work in detail, but the principle is that the state would pay a set rate for people standing for election for the time when nominations close to when the results are announced. (Normally about six weeks). Additionally, Parliament could legislate for employers to give staff additional paid time off (or banks to provide mortgage holidays) for those standing for elections. It’s about removing some of the barriers to people standing for election.

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