As reported by the sector press, the debate was intense and the vast majority of charities in the room believed that the sector was coming under undue pressure from politicians and regulators.
However, on the back of this debate, I think there is a simple truth that charities need to take on board in the run up to the election: politicians are jealous of the influence that charities have with the public. The relative increase in charities influence compared with politicians means that they have to be careful when campaigning that they stay within the rules and importantly, do not provide any opportunity for others to question their impartiality.
One questioner at the debate asked whether politicians needed to have a ‘thicker skin’. It was gently brushed aside by the politicians present, but I think that the questioner was on to something. As the main parties have lost support over the past forty years their concern about the influence of outside actors, including charities, has grown. This has become particularly true in recent years where the margins for electoral victories have narrowed considerably. A few percentage points can mean the difference between five more years on the backbenches or a red box. So politicians are naturally more sensitive to opposing views, particularly when they come from messengers that enjoy more public trust they do.
Modern elections are about controlling ‘the narrative’ as much as possible. There are two ways that politicians can do this. The first (and preferable method) would be for politicians to reconnect with the voters and re-earn their trust. However as recent stories on ‘cash-for-access’ have demonstrated this week, this isn’t something that politicians are going to find easy. The other alternative is to close down the space for outside actors to influence the debate, making it easier for politicians to influence the public. We need to remember that it isn’t only charities that have under pressure in recent years. Churches, businesses and trade unions have also come under pressure when it comes to speaking on matters of public policy.
However, it seems that politicians are particularly jealous of charities because they still enjoy high levels of public trust and are able to communicate to hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to listen to their views. It is cliché to point it out but there are now many charities with bigger supporter and donor bases than the main political parties. No charity in this debate (or anywhere else) has said that charities should be allowed to be party political and we need regulation in place to stop this. However, the idea that charities should be limited on their ability to speak out on issues and stick to ‘doing good’ or ‘focus on delivering social change’ (whatever that is defined as) is worrying. As was pointed out repeatedly in the debate, the rich tapestry of British political life contains many instances of successful (and important) charity-led campaigns.
It is also self-defeating for politicians. Ultimately, the sector has not courted influence by design. It has become more influential through speaking truth onto power and by trying to keep connected with its beneficiaries, donors and supporters. The Lobbying Act or other pieces of regulation are not going to clear charities from the public debate because the public want to hear from them. If politicians want to regain their past influence over the ‘narrative’ then perhaps they could learn from charities about how to engage with the public? In the long term charities will face considerable pressure on their right to campaign, regardless of their activities, if politicians continue to lose influence and elections campaigns continue to be tightly fought. Unfortunately, the question of how to combat this is not one that has an obvious answer. As a sector, we need to robust in defending this right to campaign and put the ball back into the politicians’ court. Tightening the rules around charity campaigning are not going to make disaffected voters listen more to the Westminster Village. It will just further undermine public confidence in our democratic process.
*Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover, Baronness Hayter, Labour Shadow Spokesperson for Cabinet Office, Sarah Atkinson, Director of Policy and Communications at the Charity Commission, Chris Mould, Chair of the Trussell Trust and Elizabeth Chamberlain, Policy Manager at NCVO.
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