But this time I was incredulous, Brooks Newmark MP, appointed in the summer as minister for civil society – responsible for charities – said after his first speech in the role, that charities should stay out of politics and stick to their knitting. Knitting. If he’d said baking maybe I wouldn’t have been so outraged; I’ve been known to knock up a batch of red wine brownies with dark chocolate ganache in aid of my church’s food bank.
But knitting. Somewhere in an office in Whitehall I’m sure a stapler made contact with the wall as a civil servant in his department saw his minister answer with flagrant ignorance of what charities do and disregard of what charity law permits, all combined with the political sensitivity of a newt.
The boring bit: charity regulation restricts what political campaigning charities can engage in. A charity must be established for specific ends, and political campaigning cannot be one of those. However, charities can, and frequently do, undertake political campaigning towards those charitable ends. Charities can advocate for policies, or campaign against them, but they cannot give support or funding to political parties or candidates.
In their guidance the Charity Commission’s chair and chief executive writes:
“The experience of charities means that it is right that they should have a strong and assertive voice. Often they speak for those who are powerless, and cannot make their case themselves. Sometimes charities confront extreme social injustice, which they will want to tackle head-on. The work that charities do, and the major role they play in public life, is something they should be proud of.”
Maybe someone should tell Brooks Newmark.
He later clarified after the first few volleys of disbelief and mockery that “charities absolutely have the right to campaign but should stay out of ‘realm of party politics’”. But that’s half an about turn and half an exercise in creating a straw man. Sometimes, and I think very occasionally, charities miss the mark and their campaigning takes on the tone of party political campaigns. That’s what charity regulation is there to prevent. But this is more a problem politicians want to create, in order to insulate themselves from those who might criticise what they are doing.
The most insidious idea that lies behind the mentality that charities should stay out of politics is the one that says some things are permitted in certain spaces and not in others. Compassion and care have a role in charity, and politics and policy making belong in parliament. Leave the soft cuddly bits to the Women’s Institute and the hard decisions to the politicians. It is what we elect them to do after all, isn’t it?
This is like the secularists who say taking faith out of public life is a perfect neutrality – it isn’t, it’s letting the secularists get their way at the expense of people of faith. Stopping charities from political campaigning is enshrining an oligarchy of politicians. It’s stopping people from speaking out, it is protecting politicians and it is perpetuates the fiction that politics is for a select few.
We need far more people involved in politics. We need charities campaigning, we need societies organising and speaking up for the disenfranchised, and we need party politics. Politics is much more than the parties in the Palace of Westminster, but in our efforts to speak up for the marginalised we cannot forget how vital party politics is. We can give hand outs from food banks and we can campaign against the systems that make it necessary, but at some point it might be necessary to become the people who make the rules, and that might mean stepping out of charities and into party politics. This should be a threshold, and it’s important not to blur, but it can’t be like leaping a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon, which is what Brooks Newmark appears to want to make it.