Stephen Hale: Prepare to be ignored by the next government. So what are we going to do about it?

The next government is going to disappoint us. This is a moment to take a hard look at our prospects and tactics: we must change ourselves, not just demand change from others

Stephen Hale
Stephen Hale

It has been a tough few years for charities. Funding has been tough. Public scrutiny is greater than ever. The willingness of governments to respect our right to campaign and heed our messages has been under threat.

But what really matters is how tough the past few years have been for the people and causes for whom we exist. Rough sleeping has risen by 165 per cent in the past decade. Hate crime is rising, as is loneliness. For those facing mental health challenges it is harder than ever to get the right help. Carbon emissions are falling, but nowhere near fast enough.

There are worrying wider trends, too, in how our country conducts debate and makes decisions. There’s more violent language in public life, with attacks on experts and on democratic institutions. Kirsty McNeill, director of policy, advocacy and campaigns at Save the Children UK, summarises them brilliantly here. The election campaign has seen more of this, and more outright lies being told to us by our politicians.

In the midst of this, charities and community organisations make the difference every day. Charities are brilliant because people are brilliant. Every minute of every day we bring the homeless in from the cold, provide food to the hungry, defend the rights of migrants, restore green space… I’d love to go on, but you already know about this fabulous tapestry. We’re championing these causes too, some with strong public support and others that for now attract far less and badly need to defend their rights.

But we don’t win often enough. In too many areas, we’re on the defensive. The current election campaign is a useful prompt to reflect on whether and how we can do better.

Of course, we don’t know the result yet. Some things will be very different, depending on which party wins. But I believe that many important challenges will face us irrespective of the outcome.

First, we will be led by a single party with a strong ideological outlook. Second, that ideology will not include any meaningful recognition of the vital role the third sector plays. Third, the new parliament will lack many MPs that have long championed our causes and values. Fourth, we will be governed by a party whose tax and spending pledges are undeliverable, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Fifth, Brexit will continue to crowd out other policy issues. Sixth, we’ll still face an environment of fake news and rising intolerance. I could go on, but you get the depressing picture.

So if the next government is going to be harder to influence than ever, how do we respond?

Do we just double down on campaigns and advocacy? We can’t solve many of the causes we espouse without decisive action from government. I’ve spent my working life seeking decisive action from government.

We must, of course, remain committed to this, finding new allies and arguments to increase the success of our advocacy and building movements that governments cannot resist. But the results seem very likely to disappoint. And none of us wants to lower our aspirations.

So we must adapt our approach before we are boiled in the water.

First, we need to do more to rebuild the foundations of our public life. This means organisations getting involved in causes that might appear to be marginal, but which threaten each of our causes. We all have a role to play in defending democratic institutions, countering hate and division, and speaking up for truth and honesty in politics and the media.

Second, we should go public with big, stretching goals that we aim to achieve in the next parliament. This would require shared commitments by organisations tackling cancer, loneliness, homelessness and other causes. Many already have shared goals of this kind, which they have highlighted during the election period.

Big ambitious goals are what we’re all about.

They’re particularly important now because they create the opportunity to reframe our dialogue with government. Instead of "we want you to do X", we could say "we have set an ambitious goal that has strong public support. Will you help?" These goals can also inspire the supporters of individual charities and capture public attention.

At Refugee Action we want every single person who is seeking asylum in the UK to have a personal asylum guide. It is insanely ambitious, but it is what people need. We want to find the partners, project models and funding that could make it a reality.

At the start of 2019, I argued in a Third Sector blog that our priorities in 2019 should be campaigns, collaboration and courage. A year later I believe we are stronger in all three areas: the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Acevo and others are championing collaboration, and a host of new initiatives have emerged. The Better Way Network and The Catalyst are stimulating our courage and creativity. Let’s regroup in 2020 and make bold, new, shared commitments. We must change ourselves, not just demand change from others.

Stephen Hale is chief executive of Refugee Action. He won the Charity Chief Executive prize at this year’s Third Sector Awards

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