Brian Lamb: Where were all the charities in the maelstrom of the general election?

Campaigns went unheard, says the consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

It wasn't just the big society that died a death on the doorstep during the election campaign - so, too, did big campaigning. All the main parties claimed that voluntary sector issues were close to their hearts - but where was the great debate? Mostly between the political parties, with the odd brick being thrown from the sidelines by charities.

Some individual campaigners, such as the father who challenged David Cameron about special needs education, managed to break through and shape the news. But campaigners went unheard, by and large.

So what happened? The Charity Commission's guidance on campaigning sets out what is and isn't allowed in the run-up to an election, but many smaller charities - and some larger ones, too - remained cautious about what activities were permissible.

A number of organisations regulated themselves beyond what was required from the commission's guidance; some had their collars gently felt behind the scenes; a few crossed the line without anyone seeming to take offence; and others are being investigated after the event.

Perhaps the guidance is not clear enough for some. But be careful what you wish for: more clarity from lawyers normally leads only one way, and caution will dominate.

Was the sector also being canny, keeping its powder dry? A desire not to make waves for a new government, at least until the waters have been tested, was probably a powerful motive for many.

The difficulties of trying to capture attention in the maelstrom of an election campaign must also have weighed on people's thinking. In order to have an impact in such a crowded marketplace, campaigns often need additional resources - difficult to justify when outcomes could be so uncertain.

Only time will tell if these were wise judgements, but the sector might have lost a major chance to get its messages across to a new cohort of MPs. Those charities that did invest in lobbying political parties while they were in opposition might already have reaped the rewards. The rest might regret not having done so earlier.

The political roundabout moves fast immediately after an election. Ministers leave, departments are rebranded and bills get passed quickly. Charities without clear agendas and good campaigning skills will be pushed aside quickly.

A new settlement is in the making, and the sooner the sector helps to shape the debate the greater its chance of influencing the outcomes.

The current political situation is both less and more complicated than before. Gone are the days of having two opposition parties to brief, along with the knowledge that what one doesn't like the other might. We now have only the coalition and Labour, leaving less latitude for lobbyists.

There is still the chance for a more subtle approach as departments take on slightly different hues of Tory blue and Lib Dem yellow.

The bookies are offering good odds for anyone betting that the coalition runs into trouble before the end of the year, so there could be more pre-election campaigning opportunities soon. But the coalition government might just work.

Either way, purdah is over and the sector needs to start setting the agenda for politicians again.


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