Gareth B Streeter works for Oasis UK and was candidate for Rother Valley in the 2015 General Election. He writes in a personal capacity.
For most of my life, I’ve been involved in the voluntary sector and for the past three years I’ve worked full time for a charity. Both have been an immense privilege. Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures is working with people who are politically interested, motivated and engaged – something that I didn’t always find to be the case when I worked in business.
Many of my colleagues in the extended charity world might not share my impassioned conservatism, but there’s something nearly everyone in the third sector seems to have in common: a deep belief that the tone of politics needs to be mature, considered and full of hope. An end to Punch and Judy, less reliance on sound bites and a debate which contains as much dialogue as it does disagreement.
Last December, when I was selected as the PPC for Rother Valley I was determined to be part of this positive, hopeful politics. To be fair, just about every Conservative candidate I met during the campaign was committed to doing exactly the same. As a first step, I set up a special email address so that potential constituents could easily contact me to discuss views and make a connection.
Within days of doing this, I was encouraged to see that my new Gmail inbox was filling up fast. But for every voter that had made contact, I received at least four on behalf of a charity campaigning on a specific aspect of policy.
I was shocked. Not at the level of correspondence, but the stark tone of the messages. Rather than feel that charities were trying to engage me in a conversation, broaden my knowledge and horizons or attempt to begin a relationship or dialogue, I had the strong sense that I was to sign up to an agenda based on little or no information – and woe betide me if I didn’t.
I appreciate that in politics there is a need for clarity. Asking a politician to share their views is part of the bread and butter of democracy. Charities have as much right to do this as everyone else and given their extensive knowledge in particular areas, perhaps they have an even greater responsibility than most to do so. But something about the general approach didn’t sit comfortably with me.
Is it reasonable to expect views on the great conflict of Israel and Palestine to be adequately expressed in a series of (quite leading) Yes/No answers that give no space for nuance or context? Should I really have to say whether I am anti or pro-abortion without any opportunity to ask questions about circumstance? Should it not be possible for me to say that I do think humanism is a valid view point that should be respected in society, but at the same time pay tribute to the huge contribution that religious communities make to the nation’s social infrastructure?
But apparently, asking these questions was not an option.
Not only was dialogue and discussion far from encouraged, but I was often told that my answers would be ‘made public.’ Nothing wrong with this at face value – but there was occasionally something sinister about the tone. I had the strong sense that if I disagreed one iota with a particular agenda, the campaign organisers would do all in their power to bar my entry to the Commons. Perhaps most worryingly of all, whenever I responded to a campaigner with a question or to clarify a particular point, not once did I receive a response.
Let me be clear on two things:
- There were of course exceptions to what I have outlined above. Breakthrough Breast Cancer stands out in my memory as a charity that was considered and clear about how I could learn more.
- I am not arguing that charities should not engage with politics. Helping the vulnerable and championing a better society is inherently political and no charity can shy away from the democratic process.
But I am asking many of them to re-think their campaigning strategies. If they reduce dialogue to one word, how can any politician move beyond the soundbite? If they threaten that all hell will break loose if there is any challenge or disagreement, then they have choked off the potential for considered conversation. The more they pretend there are always easy answers to complicated problems, the more damage they do to long-term education about their respective causes.
Of course, these campaign tactics are not unique to the third sector. They are used by business, political parties and other lobbyists. So why am I singling out the third sector for criticism?
Charitable organisations often claim to be a moral voice in society. In many cases, that claim is entirely justified and, even when it isn’t, it is certainly a worthy aspiration. But it comes with great responsibility. If they are calling for a different kind of politics, as leaders in the third sector often do, it is not unreasonable to expect them to model the charge for change.