Joe Saxton: There's no point campaigning during a general election

Charities should turn their attention elsewhere as politicians just aren't listening, writes our columnist

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

Charities should not campaign during an election. They should save their breath and money for when politicians are listening. There is strong and righteous indignation about the lobbying act and the chilling dampening it has on the likelihood of charities getting their messages across in a general election. It's never been clear what problem it was trying to tackle, and has only served to demonstrate that there is one law for companies and another for charities.

However, there is a good side to the lobbying act. It might help to save charities from wasting their money on pointless and ineffectual campaigning. When a general election is called politicians are in broadcast and not listening mode. The job of a politician during an election is to come up with policies, ram them down our throats and persuade us that their party is the best one for government.

Charity campaigning during an election is like standing on a railway track in the face of a runaway train and shouting that you'd like to talk about their rail safety record. They're not listening. They're not interested. They're politicians at the point when the annual cycle of politics is about to reach a climax. They might want to do a photo op with you and kiss any babies you have lying about, but don't mistake that for cast-iron commitments to your policies.

There is another problem with campaigning during an election: most of the candidates are a waste of campaign effort. They aren't going to be elected. There is absolutely no point in talking to a candidate and getting their promise for anything if they are not going to be an MP.

Indeed, there is little point in talking to an MP, because until it's clear who forms the government their commitments are worth nothing. As I write this Labour are promising motherhood and apple pie, and one million new homes if elected. Meanwhile, the Tories are promising almost nothing but "strong and stable" leadership. Getting promises from an opposition MP is easy, but getting them from a party in government is something else completely. The Lib Dems' promises on student fees in the 2010 election are proof of that (and it has made politicians much more reluctant to make those kinds of promises).

My own experience of campaigning during an election was charity election campaigning at its most pointless. During the election of 1987, there was a campaign called Walk for the World. Candidates signed a pledge to be nice to people in poor countries, or something similar. They all walked together for 100 yards, then went off to their next appointments (time has possibly etched away all but my most cynical memories of the campaign).

The perfect time for charities to campaign is when the election is won, the ministers are chosen and a government is forced to start running the country. At that stage ministers are most likely to want to implement some new ideas and quick wins. Maybe at that stage we will hear about the "shared society" from the new government. I think it sounds exciting.

So until about mid-July, charities can take a break from campaigning and focus on all their other priorities. Then they can do some seriously powerful influencing on the new government, when it's formed and led by Tim Farron!

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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