The prime minister surprised many in calling for a general election on 8th June. As a former civil servant, I know that all government departments are now in “lockdown” or election “purdah”, essentially not making announcements about any new or controversial government initiatives (such as modernisation initiatives or administrative and legislative changes) which could be seen to be advantageous to any candidates or parties in the forthcoming election. Incidentally, this applies to local government and council elections as well as general elections. Essentially, civil servants and local government officers zip their lips.
What’s less well understood is that those of us who work in the third sector are also governed as to what we should say during elections. A timely reminder from the Charity Commission, updated in February this year, sets out, in detail, how charities should conduct themselves during an election period. Regardless of elections, it is the case, as the Commission puts it, that “the guiding principle of charity law in terms of elections is that charities must be, and be seen to be, independent from party politics”. The Commission is absolutely right to say that the independent nature of our sector is critically important in maintaining and gaining public support; arguably, something we’ve not been that good at, of late.
What’s bothering me, in the current climate of distrust of some charities, (and I don’t want to overstate that) is the temptation to be over-cautious, to over interpret the Commission’s guidance – to simply shut up until the election is over. Having read the election guidance, again, and the accompanying Speaking Out: Guidance on campaigning and political activities by charities, I see nothing there that ought to mute our campaigning voice. Indeed, in section 3.1 (just to prove I have read it), it asks the question: Can a charity carry out campaigning and political activity. The short answer: Yes – any charity can become involved in campaigning and in political activity which further or support its charitable purposes, unless its governing document prohibits it.
This is surely the time to shout louder? Or, as I would have said as a former spin doctor, increase our share of voice. This is the time, right now, to set out your stall, to challenge those in power and those who seek power. If we are worried about the public perception of charities, that is nothing to how the public view politicians. I believe that we have a duty, as charity campaigners, to present our case in a creative a way as possible; backed by evidence, experience and first-hand witness. If you can only make your case by aligning with one political party, then that is not only wrong in charity law, it’s a pretty dumb communications strategy.
I am of the view that most of the politicians I have met, go into politics to attempt to make the world a better place. That said, there are too many of our fellow citizens who feel disheartened and disenfranchised by our elected politicians and The System.
Who speaks for them? Who fights their battles? We do. Elections ought to be a call to arms for charities.
To the barricades, or at least, the airwaves.