Peter Stanford: Tread with caution at election time

To voice our concerns is a legitimate part of our work, but we must do this with care, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There is much to be said for fixed-term parliaments. Some complain that they cause what we are now suffering – a five-month election campaign, building up to polling day in May. But it's better to see that as an opportunity, especially for trustee boards.

What is already clear is that the battleground for this general election will be around public services, how far the affluent are prepared to go to support the poor, health provision, benefit reform and whether "care in the community" is a hollow phrase. All of these are spaces that third sector organisations inhabit. We see what is going on in the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society, so the temptation is to speak up and spell out these realities, especially at a time when politicians peddle half-truths or come up with half-baked schemes to wave a magic wand over intractable issues.

To voice our concerns, rooted in hands-on experience, is a legitimate part of our work. But in election time, we have to be especially cautious in doing so. Dom Helder Camara, the Brazilian Catholic archbishop, once remarked: "When I give the poor food, they call me a saint. When I ask why they have no food, they call me a communist." It neatly sums up how easy it is to be sucked into party political scraps.

Input from the board

Where, then, to draw the line? For charities – as opposed to explicitly campaigning organisations – this is a perennial question, and one of those few areas of day-to-day management that requires detailed input from the trustee board. We have to be on top of guiding chief executives, case workers, policy teams and press officers as to what is appropriate and what isn't. The dangers of getting it wrong are particularly strong in this coming election, because politicians in general are so distrusted by the public. If we show ourselves to be no better than these despised politicians by appearing to play along with their games of spin and point-scoring, then our good name might also be tarnished.

So here are a few simple rules of thumb. First, have the discussion at board level. With five months of campaigning to go, there's no excuse to avoid putting it on the trustee agenda. Second, be cautious when moving seamlessly from the sort of individual hard cases that we all come across in our work to generalisations about current policy and manifesto pledges.

Third, make sure that any reports, statements or policy proposals published in the run-up to May are firmly rooted in facts rather than opinions - in what we deal with every day rather than in broader trends that we might or might not be seeing.

Finally, use sober, moderate language. You don't have to shout "scandal" or "back to the 1930s" to get your point across. Indeed, such words and phrases often get in the way when the facts speak for themselves. It's a lesson that the politicians will never learn.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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