Charity leaders standing for election? It's a bad idea

We should not get too big for our boots, says Rosamund McCarthy

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

It is not surprising that the constitutional crisis followed the banking crisis. A lack of transparency and accountability has characterised both the financial meltdown and the MPs' expenses fiasco. Representative democracy is failing, but participative democracy retains high levels of public trust.

The warning signs of a democratic deficit have long been evident - some charities have memberships greater than any of the political parties, and 17 million registered voters did not vote at the 2005 General Election. However, the Power Inquiry - the independent inquiry into democracy in the UKs - found that 3 per cent of non-voters were active in charities or community groups.

There is therefore a powerful argument for sector leaders to collectively don white suits and rush to the hustings. Some think the claim of charities to virtue is overly self-righteous. Sure, charity governance could always improve, but it is hogwash for New Philanthropy Capital to claim that only 10 per cent of charities understand accountability (19 May, page 1).

The UK's one million trustees, the vast majority of whom are unpaid, show a spirit of selflessness sorely missing in politics and business. The intangible goodwill generated by trustees' love and devotion is the real accountability, not some fancy impact model dreamt up by NPC. And the MPs' expenses crisis has surely laid to rest the argument that paying trustees will improve governance. Permitting trustees to stick their hands in the till routinely is a recipe for disaster. Charities are trusted not because all trustees are better people than politicians, but because strict rules keep those likely to err on the straight and narrow.

Despite the sector's reputation as a knight in shining armour, is there a danger in participative democracy coming to the rescue of representative democracy?

Civil society should comment on the reform of political institutions and ways of increasing citizen engagement, but stand clear of the electoral process. Fifteen years ago, the voluntary sector fielded candidates in the Indian elections, but political parties turned on them and voters rejected them. However, greater principles are at stake if civil society gets too big for its boots.

Without mediating institutions to make decisions about the competing claims for resources, there would be anarchy. Our society desperately needs political renewal. It is in everyone's interest to close the gap between the self-gratifying world of Westminster politics and the man in the street.

- Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity.

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