I write this during party conference season, a particularly interesting time in the run-up to a general election. Although the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, failed to cover the topic in his keynote speech, there is little doubt that the deficit will dominate debate over the next few months.
In a speech at the Charity Finance Group's recent investment conference, Trevor Williams, chief economist at Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking, painted a picture of falling, yet historically high, government debt, and a recovering economy in which growth is more balanced than in the recent past, but which continues to depend on consumer spending. He pointed out that although employment levels were growing, wages were falling in real terms. So against this economic backdrop, what can we expect?
The announcements of political parties are mostly framed to woo voters. Pledged giveaways seem motivated by a desire to tempt swing voters or to keep the party faithful sweet. The parties fight to distinguish themselves, favouring or shunning differing social and economic voting constituencies (our beneficiaries). What they say is couched in terms of the flawed notion that one section of society can gain only at the expense of another. Apart from a flurry of media coverage about our short-lived minister's resignation – a result of a rather cliched sex scandal – I've heard little about the role of our sector.
I am crying out to be inspired by politicians, but I am yet to be convinced that any party truly has its eye on the long game
As I've listened, debate feels focused on the short term. Like many people, I am crying out to be inspired by politicians, but I am yet to be convinced that any party truly has its eye on the long game, especially when it comes to addressing the hardest social issues. Is this real democracy?
The African-American civil rights activist A Philip Randolph wrote: "A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess." Yet as we approach the general election in May, the gap between rich and poor and the inequality in society seem to increase, not diminish, and the need for our sector's support continues to grow.
Why the short-termism? In my humble view, it's because there is little incentive to think longer term. Politicians say whatever they believe will get them elected, perhaps in the honest belief that only by holding office can they make real changes. However, four years is a mere hiccup in time. Anything too radical or too much of a slow burn is unlikely to bear fruit quickly enough to get them re-elected; and in any case, the next party in is likely to unravel those policies not seen to be giving sufficient immediate return. In politics, the key performance indicators don't incentivise activities that require investment of time and money over the long haul.
There is a lesson in this for charities. Be radical, be long-term and put social change at the heart of what you do, what you measure and what you report on. If you focus on what gets the charity glory or money in the short term rather than what tackles the root causes of the problems that we exist to address, we too fail to serve democracy. It falls to us as a sector to avoid short-termism, smooth out the bumps between changes of government and remain committed to acting in the long-term public benefit, whoever wins next year. Keep that in mind when you next set your KPIs.
Caron Bradshaw is chief executive of the Charity Finance Group