John Tizard: Charities should show leadership and prudence during the general election

01 Nov 2019 Voices

The general election campaign 2019 is underway.

I hope and trust that voluntary and community organisations (VCS) and charities more generally are actively considering what their main asks (or perhaps more diplomatically, ‘suggestions’) will be to the various political parties. 

My urgent advice is that the sooner such ideas and proposals are shared the better, not least because the drafting of manifestos is already well-advanced. There is an inevitability also, that Brexit and related agendas will dominate the pre-election discourse (although if the 2017 general election is a guide, domestic issues are likely to emerge strongly during the campaign). 

Push for policies that will create public benefit

I believe that to be credible, charities and wider civil society groups should principally push for policies that will create public benefit and specifically, for each organisation, benefits for their beneficiaries - ahead of institutional self-interests. In other words, it will be best to focus on societal, environmental and economic issues ahead of charity regulation and even funding.

Whilst individual charities will inevitably wish to pursue specific agendas and policies relevant to their beneficiaries and their missions, the national bodies can (and should) focus on more generic matters, which will hopefully be addressed by those bodies, both at the national and constituency levels.

Clearly, charities must avoid being partisan in their advocacy. However, this should not deter them from addressing contentious issues, even those about which there may be differences of opinion between the parties. Charities and the wider civil society groups can and should draw on ‘evidence’ from their beneficiaries and their direct experiences. They can also draw on their core principles to express views and promote policies on the whole spectrum of social, economic and environmental matters, however contentious.

There is little value in charities simply being polite or timid in their asks

In that light, one might therefore expect charities to be pressing for policy commitments on issues such as: ending austerity; improving the social security system; reversing some of the most pernicious ‘welfare reforms’; significantly increasing public service investment; tackling inequality, poverty, poor education outcomes and homelessness; promoting social cohesion, diversity and opportunity; addressing the climate emergency; and enhancing international development.

Hopefully, all charities will call on political parties to commit to address the underlying structural causes of social and economic inequality – and not simply to ameliorate the symptoms. Bluntly, there is little value in charities simply being polite or timid in their asks. Rather, they should be bold.

Radical and more outspoken charities may choose to press for measures such as universal entitlement to public services, social security and citizenship. They and others may argue for more progressive taxation to address wealth and income inequality.  And still others for an end to the marketisation of public services and a push towards their democratisation.

The latter group will likely also want to press the case for ending competitive tendering when charities and community groups are engaged in public service delivery – proposing instead that competition and commercial contracting is replaced by relational partnering.

Ask political parties to commit to ensuring that charities are respected

Of course, there is also a strong argument for charities and their representative bodies to call on a future government to more visibly value civil society and the contribution of charities – which implies asking political parties to commit to ensuring that charities: are respected as legitimate voices in the democratic process; have a clear legal right to contribute to political discourse and to challenge those in power; and that their independence be protected.

I also suggest that charities and their representative bodies call on a future government to instigate a national debate about the contemporary and future role of charities, and thus charity law and regulation. However, charities and its sector bodies should not ever appear to be self-serving.

I have deliberately not mentioned Brexit in this policy basket, although it will undoubtedly be critical to the political campaigns. Personally, I believe that charities should oppose any Brexit that threatens to weaken the economy, diminish citizens’ rights or risk reducing environmental and employment rights. That said, the next general election, whenever it comes, really does need to be about more than Brexit. 

It should be about the kind of society, economy, environment, country and world in which we wish to live. This is the time for radical change. The general election, therefore, has the potential to be as momentous and seismic as those in 1945 and 1979. 

Charities cannot afford to go missing in action (or worse, through inaction).

John Tizard is an independent strategic advisor and commentator. He is currently a trustee and charity chair and chair of a CIC. 

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