Mark Flannagan: Get stuck into this election

Many argue that the charity sector has been gagged and cannot speak out during the election campaign. This is nonsense, says our columnist

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

A book I cannot recommend highly enough to those who want to be given hope that reason and truth can win against lies and prejudice is Denial, by the Holocaust academic Deborah Lipstadt. It describes the libel trial brought by the Holocaust denier David Irving against her. During the trial, Irving was comprehensively shown to have manipulated historical data to support his views and not to be the balanced historian he claimed to be.

The story of the book is an affirmation that truth backed by evidence does hold sway, that bullies and bigots can be beaten and academic rigour carries value beyond a strongly held prejudice. Irving’s tactics were to bully and intimidate, using the threat of expensive libel trials to make people cave in. There were those who told Lipstadt not to bother fighting the case; to do as many others had done and settle. But she is made of tougher stuff. She knew that someone had to stand up and say "no". She took a stand and proved them wrong.

The libel trial was pre-Twitter, before this era of "fake news", so I guess many would say Lipstadt might have won back then, but it is naive to take hope from that trial in our post-Brexit, Trump-as-President world. We have been influenced to the point of despair by the belief that politics and the people are disconnected, that the liberal values running through many of us are not being heard. If mistruths, distortions and straight-forward lies always win the day, what is the point of continuing to lobby, make our arguments and present our well-reasoned policy documents? Politics is, after all, driven by gut feeling, instant decisions and base instincts. If reason and intellect cannot win, why bother even making the case? But there is a point. We need to remember that every day we have evidence that is truthful about the state of our nation, and we need to consider how to use this to push back against negativity and bile.

Many voices say that our sector has been gagged and cannot speak out during the general election campaign. Nonsense. Our sector can and should speak out and should do so with honesty and fearfulness. Yes, we will have to suffer the soundbites, photo calls, gaffes and policy announcements. We will have to witness the humiliation of politicians as things go wrong (remember Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich moment in 2015?). But there can be space for what we have to say, and we must try to find it. The rules on campaigning have always been clear and tight. I have been around and campaigned for charities for more general elections than I care to remember. The core rule has always been that you cannot advocate for one party and you must try to communicate with all candidates equally. That is not too much to ask, is it?

After it is all over we will begin to wonder what the results will mean for our sector and how we can engage with a new tranche of parliamentarians. Equally, the new parliament will need to buckle down and get on with the job of governing. The cliché "campaign in poetry, govern in prose" is true. We need to demonstrate our role in parliament and in wider society. Don’t give up. Crack on and get stuck in.

Mark Flannagan (@MarkFlann) is an independent consultant and commentator, and a former charity chief executive

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