Shami Chakrabarti’s rapid promotion by Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour’s shadow Attorney General has implications for Liberty, the human rights organisation of which she was an inspirational leader; and for charities and other independent voluntary organisations.
Chakrabarti left Liberty in March 2016. In May, when she took on the investigation into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, she announced that she had become a member of the Labour Party. Having published the report in July, she accepted Corbyn’s nomination as a Labour Peer, announced in early August, and has now in early October joined his shadow Cabinet. She was fully within her rights to take these decisions. Although I do not know her, I have no doubt that she intends to use her new position to continue her brilliant campaigning for human rights.
Nor do I believe that she was motivated by party politics throughout her time as Director of Liberty. I assume she was highly professional, independent and dedicated to the cause. She has given Governments of all shades a hard time when necessary. Knowing this in her heart, her purpose now is no doubt to bring the same independence of spirit and commitment to the special role of the (shadow) Attorney General with its independent judicial responsibilities. All these may be facts. The problem is perceptions, which are also part of reality.
For Chakrabarti did not allow much of a purdah period after stepping down from a very high profile voluntary organisation, funded by both charitable and non charitable sources, before embracing Labour. So what are the perceptions likely to be? That she was not really free of party political bias all the time. That she was all along part of a (very) left wing part of the metropolitan elite. That this is further evidence that campaigning by allegedly independent charities or other voluntary organisations is a cover for a distinctly left wing world view with strong connections to the Labour Party, frequently antagonistic to the purposes of a Conservative Government elected by the people.
We know that these perceptions matter. They result in the CAF finding that well over 60 per cent of Conservative MPs think that charities should not campaign against Government decisions. They fertilise the threats of Ministers and set the climate for lobbying bills and anti advocacy clauses. They percolate through to the Charity Commission’s appointed Board members and their repeated failures to support the advocacy role of the sector as a valuable part of public decision-making.
Such visceral party political perceptions count for a lot more than many of us professionals would like.
Message to retiring Chief Executives of high profile charities and other independent bodies out there: when deciding how soon, and how prominently, to embrace a party political role, spare a thought for public and political perceptions – of the organisation you are leaving, and of the charity and voluntary sector. Your choice matters.