The general election, politics and charities

Charities have to be very cautious at the best of times about never being seen to support or oppose a particular political party. While there have been attempts, formal and informal, to restrict the freedom of charities to speak out on issues, these have been resisted.

In normal times it is fine for me to say that a particular policy will have a positive or negative impact on our client group, even if that policy is associated entirely with one political party. It is not acceptable to say: “Those evil (party name), typical of them proposing ….” And equally unacceptable to say: “I love the (party name), they are so wonderful ….”.

During a general election it is all the more restrictive. There is a fine line that can easily be crossed by statements that can be seen supporting or opposing the manifesto of a particular party. There are things I have long called for which might, and I suspect will, be in the manifesto of various parties, but not all.

Therefore, discretion is the better part of valour at these times.

In some elections we have a procession of politicians wishing to be seen visiting BHT or one of its services. The approach we will be taking this year is not to agree to a visit to BHT services by local candidates. I will meet with any of them to brief them on the issues facing our clients and those facing BHT itself.

In one election, three candidates who were due to debate each other on the Sunday Politics South East asked me to brief them. I t was amusing to listen to them, two of them normally at odds with each other, agreeing with each other, the third ignored what I had said and opposed the other two.

So this blog will be more toned down than usual. I will be publishing real life stories of clients but none will be related to the election.

But come 9th June, I might just find my voice again!

On the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith

imageIDS is a figure of contradictions. His resignation this evening has been greeted with both dismay and jubilation on the Twitter.

He has been the architect of many aspects of welfare reform, aspects of which have enjoyed public support yet provoked in equal measure spluttering of outrage amongst many. The media has successfully sold the mythology he propagated that there are skivers and strivers. Those of us who work with the poorest and most excluded know the hardships experienced by welfare cuts, and the fear from, and hardship caused by, the cruel sanctions regime.

The fact that food banks have proliferated and have become an essential means of survival is his legacy. The reality of Foodbank Britain is something he has denied for too long. It is a legacy that should shame him.

Yet unlike many, I think that IDS has been motivated by a commitment to social justice. Like him, I believe that the best way out of poverty is through employment. Sadly, the low wage, high housing cost economy that exists in the UK has meant that ordinary people are increasingly relying on state benefits, particularly housing benefit. According to the DWP, 93% of new claims for housing benefit are made by households in low paid employment.

Like many politicians, he was insulated from reality and had little idea what is really happening in society. His social justice agenda was overwhelmed by the austerity agenda which, on the surface, appears to be the reason for his resignation. Whether the timing of his resignation was influenced by the debate around Europe is open to question. The animosity that exists between IDS and George Osbourne is not.

His repeated assurance that Universal Credit would be delivered on time and in budget should be used as a case study for future ministers who believe that by merely saying something that it would happen. His assurances have long been a joke. People are misguided if they think that by getting into power they can achieve things. At best they can align and inspire people to implement what they want, and that is the only way they can achieve things.

Will we see a policy change regarding welfare reform? IDS has suggested tonight that he is unhappy with the direction of government policy on welfare, that it is a compromise too far. Many people believe him to be the architect of welfare reform, but changes announced in the Budget regarding PIP appear not to be down to him.

If there is one change I would like to see implemented by his successful it would be to end the cruel sanctions regime. It is arbitrary, punitive and causes hardship. It is cruel.

The added value that local, community-based organisations can bring to contracts

Yesterday in a post, I described as “brave” the decision of commissioners in Brighton and Hove to award contracts for substance misuse and rough sleeping services to organisations from outside the City. The word ‘brave’ was used to convey the idea of a step into the unknown.  The previous provider of both these contracts (not BHT) is a well-established and respected organisation with good local knowledge, relationships, infrastructure and commitment.

Time will tell whether the decisions of the commissioners were the right ones, particularly relating to rough sleeping where an expectation of a 20% year on year reduction in the number of rough sleepers is built into the contract. With the numbers on the street increasing, achieving that target, at least in year 1, appears to be challenging.

I don’t make special pleading for contracts to be awarded to local organisations because BHT is local, but because of the added value that ‘buying local’ brings.

The City Council, for example, should recognise that, notwithstanding a recent improvement in its standing with the public, it enjoys comparatively low levels of confidence compared to charities and community-based organisations. The Council should do more to validate the role played by charities and other community groups (which after the Fire and Rescue Service enjoys the highest levels of support/confidence of the public).  The City Council should ensure that locally-based organisations are supported, not least because of the added value they bring by their local infrastructures, local knowledge, long-term commitment to the area, and established relationships.

There is some excellent commissioning locally, some not so. It works at its best when commissioners work in partnership with the charity and community sector, respecting our expertise and experience.  For our part, we have to accept and adapt so that we can deliver the strategic objectives to which the commissioners are working.  The commissioners, in turn, should leave it to providers to decide how we will deliver contracts and those strategic objectives.

BHT has, itself, moved into new areas of work over the years. The words ‘Brighton’ and ‘Housing’ in our name hasn’t always been welcomed when we began, for example, to deliver an adult education project outside Brighton.  But we have been very careful to engage and work with others well established in these localities, and we have not waded in with our size 12’s pretending that we rule the roost or know best.

By all means, commissioners should select the best organisation to deliver a contract, but that judgement should be based on more than price, and should give due consideration to social value including local infrastructure, local knowledge, long-term commitment to the area, and established relationships. These things take years to establish.  This added value might not always be delivered by those attracted to the area by relatively short-term contracts.

Trying to silence critics says much about the inadequacies and insecurities of the political establishment

One of the things I experienced during the general election campaign was that in the week or two before polling day I found myself strangely inhibited from expressing cergain views on this blog. It was in part due the need for the representative of a charity to remain politically neutral. I did not want to damage my relationship with those who might be elected into positions of influence for the next four or five years.

There was also the Lobbying Act.

Remaining politically neutral is something that I understand and respect. Being inhibited from speaking because of the Lobbying Act is something I have strongly resented. How dare politicians try to inhibit charities from speaking about the impact policies might have on their beneficiaries. It isn’t as if all politicians are measured and reasonable,  objective and rational. In the election campaign some promises were being made that looked plain desperate.

Of course we should never be party political, but there is a million miles between being party political and expressing doubts on, perhaps even outright condemnation of, a particular policy that would have on clients who are homeless, in housing need or living in poverty.

During the election campaign I was asked to host events or to endorse events organised by all three main parties in Brighton and Hove.  Of course I declined all such requests, not because of the Lobbying Act but because it wouldn’t have been right to do otherwise.

I was amused by this cartoon, mindful as I was that many a true word is spoken in jest.

anti-lobbying

Trying to silence critics says more about the inadequacies and insecurities of the political establishment than it does about the critics themselves.

The next four or five years are going to be tough regardless of the election rhetoric. Mature and confident politicians value and even welcome constructive feedback. It might just help them govern better.

 

(My apologies to Fran and the publishers of this cartoon.  I have mislaid my source.  Please let me know who I should credit and I will gladly do so).

Politicians behaving badly

Each week I will be writing a small Opinion column for the Brighton Argus.  This is the text of today’s column (28th April 2015):

It is said that in politics you have opponents in the other parties. Your enemies are on your own side.

Election campaigns tend to give the lie to this, although not completely. The campaign ought to be robust, with frank exchanges of views. But when it comes to parties at the same end of the political spectrum who campaign against each other, the exchanges can be vitriolic. Labour and the Greens can be at each others throats, the Conservatives and UKIP at each others.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Last week a hustings meeting in Brighton Pavilion saw candidates ending the meeting by paying affectionate tribute to each other, and at Thursday’s Hove Civic Society meeting, the Labour, Green and Conservative candidates were nothing but civil.

Elsewhere, not least on social media, the tone can be awful. Some party activists think that the public will be convinced by them foul-mouthing their opponents and their enemies, as if the electorate are as gullible as these politicians think we are!

I am not sure whether those responsible realise how off putting negative campaigning is to ordinary voters. I personally no longer vote for any party but vote for whom I believe to be the best candidate. I certainly won’t be voting for anyone whose campaign is characterised by negativity and abuse.

With a week to go before polling day, I would urge the parties and their candidates to end their campaign on a positive note, not politicians behaving badly, but by offering a vision of hope and optimism.

My regular Sunday morning rant about the state of politics and elections

When I was involved in electoral politics, some 30 years ago or more, I used to tell party workers that elections are not about policy. Election campaigns are no more and no less about getting more of your voters through the door of the polling station than the other lot are able to achieve.

Election campaigns are merely the effective identification of your support base and then mobilising them on polling day itself to actually cast their vote. Elections are not won or lost, at least at a local level, during the election campaign. People have made their minds up well before.

People cast their votes on a number of factors, not least how they have traditionally voted, whether they have met a candidate or not, and whether over the years the basics are being done, such as how clean the street are or whether their bins are emptied.

There will be some who have already been persuaded by particular issues, such as children centres, cycle lanes, parking, support for the voluntary sector, or simply that they think that it is time for a change.

Candidates should realise that it is far too late to try to persuade people about policy and personality. Their minds are already made up.

This is why I find the controversy around the leaders debates so shallow. “Anywhere, anyplace, any time” leaves me less than cold.

Yes, I want a head to head between Cameron and Miliband, and yes I want leaders debates involving all the credible parties. That does include Ukip and the Greens.

But do not be fooled. I am less likely, as a result of the debates, to make a positive choice regarding who to vote for than I am to make a choice about who I won’t be getting my vote.

Elections can’t be won during an election campaign but they certainly can be lost.

What could possibly go wrong if a charity employee or trustee stands for public office?

BHT engages in politics and with politicians. We are probably one of the most politically engaged charities in Brighton and Hove, less so in Eastbourne and Hastings. In the past BHT has had four employees who were Labour councillors during their employment, and we currently have two Board members who are former councillors (one Conservative, one Labour). One Board member is currently a candidate in an East Sussex constituency.

A Sussex-based charity felt it appropriate that a board member should stand down when running as an independent for public office. Another person left her employment within a local charity when she decided to stand to be a councillor. She was subsequently elected.

There are obvious risks involved in an employee or Board member standing for public office. To overcome these risks, charities should to evolve their ‘conflicts of interest’ policies, to make it explicit that members of staff and Board members should declare their intention to stand in order that relationships with key politicians can be managed.

There would be a more difficult situation if someone stood on a perceived racist platform. This might become an issue running up to the general election as the parties seek to become ‘tougher’ on immigration.

We can’t stop someone standing, but we can make a judgement on what they should or shouldn’t do publicly on behalf of the charity. When I was a councillor, and for several years after I stood down, I made a point of not doing anything in the media (I bet some find that hard to believe!) and others were quoted instead of me. Some thought that that was not necessary but I had upset a lot of people when I was a councillor.

Charities should encourage its staff to participate in civic duties including becoming magistrates or standing for elected office. There is a potential for conflicts of interest. I think that anyone involved in a charity who is considering standing for election should speak to the charity’s chair and chief executive to evaluate how conflicts might be reduced and managed. (The BHT Board member did this).

When it is a member of staff, measures might need to be taken that could include reducing or ending (either temporarily or permanently) public representation on behalf of the charity in the media or in external forums, as well as direct engagement between the charity and the candidate’s opponents in order to reaffirm that the person’s candidature is independent of their role within the charity.

Candidates should not use any information or status gained from their employment with the charity, Members of staff should not make any direct reference to their employment in their election literature, and they should be aware that their conduct as a candidate might reflect positively or negatively on the charity.

Apart from that, what could possibly go wrong ….?!