A General Election campaign showcases the contribution of charities’ non-party political activities to our democracy. For a moment, set aside questions about the Lobbying Act or wet blanketry from the Charity Commission Board. There is plenty to celebrate.
Look at some of the key themes of the Party Manifestoes. The Living Wage: thanks to decades-long campaigns and research by charities like London Citizens and its wider family of Citizens, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation researchers and charitable funders like the Trust for London. The commitment by all parties except UKIP to at least 0.7 per cent of GDP to overseas aid: thanks to many years of work by numerous international development NGOs, churches and other religious charities. The extraordinary prominence of measures against aggressive tax avoidance: thanks to many key campaigning charities, including, from the early, formative stages onwards, ActionAid (of which I am a Trustee) and Christian Aid. The rising salience of mental health services as Cinderella of the NHS would be inconceivable without the persistent commitment of MIND, Young Minds, Rethink and all the rest. And look at the heroic efforts of so many housing and homeless people charities to get the housing shortage such a high profile. The cross-party pledge before the election to maintain ambitious targets for carbon reduction by the UK could not have happened without the work of The Green Alliance and several other key environmental charities. The point is not that charities do it by themselves, since they form many alliances with businesses, trade unions, politicians of different hues, and the media, nor that many of them are not tearing their hair out with frustration, but without them it would not have happened. Those voices and issues would not have been part of our national democratic conversation. Readers will be able to multiply examples from their own areas of experience, and their own favourite charities, in almost any subject.
Moreover, where on earth would we be without charities like the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the NIESR, and The King’s Fund bringing their expertise to bear from an independent charity perspective on the offerings of different parties every day? How many policies that are in the manifestoes have been shaped by charitable Think Tanks like the IPPR, Policy Exchange, Civitas or the Institute for Economic Affairs (yes, “right wing” as well as others: charity campaigning does not belong to any one tendency) as well as by subject-based charities?
Every parliamentary candidate will know how many local secular and religious charities engage with them, educate them and provide opportunities to make their views and intentions known.
Nor let us forget the “manifestoes” drawn up by the umbrella bodies of the voluntary sector itself, not least NCVO, ACEVO, CAF, National Philanthropy Capital, and many others, influencing the thinking of political parties about how to promote charitable giving, volunteering and other voluntary action as part of our society.
On top of this, many charities including, prominently, the churches have used their influence to urge people to participate in the Election, to get engaged and help shape the future. We don’t know what the turnout will be but at whatever level it will surely be the better for the entreaties and practical encouragement of so many different kinds of charities.
The many-faceted contribution of charities to our democratic society should be acknowledged and celebrated. It is not separate from their “real” role, or in the notorious phrase, from their “knitting”: it is part of their knitting. It is and always has been an integral part of how the charity sector brings the voices and needs of its beneficiaries to bear on society’s collective decision-making. Thank Goodness. All those charities playing their part in that process this Election time: huge thanks, and keep going!