Debra Allcock Tyler: Disengaging with politicians is not the answer

Although many of us may feel we have justifiable differences on policy and values with any particular government, there is always hope

When I turned 18, it was a general election. In my family you vote. No chance of getting away with saying you think it’s pointless or you don’t care – you get marched to that voting booth with lectures about women, railings and soldiers fighting for your right to vote ringing in your ears.

So although I wasn’t particularly politically engaged at 18, I duly went to the polling station to cast my vote. I rang my father afterwards to tell him I’d voted Conservative and he asked why.

I said it was because that’s who our family votes for. He was furious.

He scolded me, saying I should never vote just the way others did. I should know what the policies were and why I preferred them to the opposition’s.

It was an important lesson and since then I’ve read manifestos and kept an eye on politics and have thus voted Lib Dem, Green, Labour and Conservative, depending on what mattered to me at the time or how I thought they might serve this sector that I love so much.

I share this story because it does puzzle me why folk are loyal to a particular political party, regardless.

It’s almost as if we treat them like football teams. We pick a side and stick to it through life, beating up the supporters of the opposition because they don’t follow our team, and forgiving the appalling behaviour of some players simply because they belong to our team.

My father taught me that we need to be much more thoughtful than that when thinking about who we engage with when it comes to politics.

So dont, as a charity, assume that any particular rhetoric and policies over the years are proof against a possible breakthrough or compromise.

As an extreme example, who would have predicted that Ian Paisley would sit down in the Northern Ireland cabinet with Martin McGuinness?

It’s easy to be angry at the state of the country right now and to give up in despair, but disengaging is not the answer.

Although many of us may feel we have justifiable differences on policy and values with any particular government, there is always hope.

So, never write off a political party or politician without at least trying to engage; persuade, find a chink of promise. Attitudes do change and positions with them.

And just as we dont want politicians to stereotype charities, we should not stereotype them. Thinking in terms of right or left is not necessarily that helpful when it comes to campaigning for our cause.

If we go in making assumptions about how they can help based on which party they belong to, we limit the possibility of influencing.

Politicians are human beings who often have complex and nuanced views about issues – just as we do – and have the unenviable task of prioritising conflicting demands.

So charities should absolutely engage with politicians – but never forget it’s about doing what’s best for those we serve, not being driven by blind loyalty to, or hatred of, any one political party.

Or I’ll tell on you to my dad!

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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