The claims from the British Red Cross that the NHS is facing an ‘humanitarian crisis’ have sparked a new row about charities and ‘political’ campaigning. But attacks aimed at shutting down charities’ role in campaigning take us down a slippery road.
Having spent over a decade previously immersed in the political world I know where some of the attacks start from. There are definitely those involved in public service who feel like they have the monopoly on achieving social change because they ultimately answer to the electorate. Truthfully there were times when I got frustrated by single issue campaigns that appeared to fail to recognise the multitude of competing challenges you have to try to solve when you’re in office at any level. But it’s precisely because those in political office face so many different (and often related) challenges that we need charities to speak out on the causes that they know best.
It’s even more powerful if you can give the people you are working on behalf of a chance to speak out themselves. Too often the voices of the most marginalised have no platform and don’t know how to work the system. Meanwhile those with wealth, money and privilege are easily able to defend their interests.
The imbalances of power within our society that stem from inequality strike at the social contract underpinning our democratic systems. Anything charities and civil society can do to redress those power imbalances and ensure everyone has an equal voice is a vital public service.
The latest example of attempts to tackle this imbalance might be the ‘shared society’ vision set out by Theresa May. Charities may be hopeful of what this holds, although we’ll all be waiting to see if warm words are backed up by real action—not least as the monumental Brexit task looms large. But, as we’ve discussed before, this agenda potentially moves on from Cameron’s ‘Life Chances’ agenda, which purported to focus on those most marginalised. If not civil society, who will consistently stand with those who aren’t managing at all?
Ultimately, though, the role of charities in public debate is much wider than simply influencing politicians. It’s always been true that politics is not the only route to actually achieving social change, and that charities and civil society have an important role to play. Tristram Hunt leaving a troubled parliamentary Labour party—and Brexit-voting seat—to run a prestigious charity demonstrates that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.