I recently had a very heated debate with a former colleague about political affiliations that left a very sour taste in my mouth and got me to thinking about how we can continue to influence in an increasingly conservative political space and how constant criticism of the right can damage our ability to make a difference at policy level. I did not enjoy this conversation because it made me uncomfortable and angry. But however unsettling conversations are they draw us out of the echo chamber and make us question our beliefs, which can ultimately make them stronger.
The colleague in question is a member of the Conservatives and I boldly asked him how he reconciled working for a charity with supporting a political party that is hell bent on making life harder for those we actively seek to help. As I’ve already mentioned, it got pretty heated.
As I sat in an Uber home, I considered this conversation.
Almost everyone I have met who works in the charity sector leans to the left politically and it makes sense; historically the left has been about fairness and equality, community ownership and nationalisation. Conservatism celebrates low taxes, capitalism, free enterprise and private ownership – for many of us, these conservative values are what makes our jobs necessary.
We’ve had a Conservative government for 7 years (albeit in coalition for the first 5). In that time we have seen cuts to all public services including the police and NHS, there have been cuts to disability allowances, changes to the way benefits are administered and questions over the safety to our pensions. With a general election just days away, it seems that these cuts are yet to continue and those who are worse off in our society will still struggle.
We are angry, frustrated and critical of our government and we very well have a right to be. But are we focussing this anger in the right way? By June 9th we will have in place our government for the next 5 years and as much as I am willing the British people to get behind Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, sadly I think we will be preparing ourselves for another 5 years of Tory premiership.
Whatever government is in power, we need to work with them. You may be reading this and thinking it’s only relevant to campaigns and policy teams, but I’m a fundraiser and I know that every government action that effects charities impacts my work. We should all engage politically.
We must continue to be critical of government actions that put pressure on public services and services we provide and we must campaign against cuts that will see more people desperately coming through our doors, and we must do this constructively. Misinformed and misjudged anger does not help our service users and throwing our toys out the pram does nothing except make our plight more difficult.
I am a big twitter user and my bio has my job title and organisation in it, so anyone reading my tweets can easily know I work at St Mungo’s. I absolutely despise the “views my own” line and therefore don’t include it, so am having to learn to structure my political arguments and criticisms into 140 characters and not refer to the Prime Minister as “Skeletor” in the public domain. Working in the third sector we all have the power to become influencers and so we must represent our organisations in a way that promotes cohesion.
I cannot tell you the number of conversations I have had in the last 8 weeks with colleagues since the general election was announced that have criticised our current government and the unfairness of the current status quo. I work in such a social issue, that we are at the heart of government setbacks and people here feel it strongly. Many of those conversations were with smart, thoughtful and well-informed people, but this hasn’t stopped the strength of the argument, the acute anger and sometimes the name calling (see above!). Freedom of speech is something we must protect as the most treasured right, but we must also ensure that when we use our voices we use them to benefit not detriment.
Being a liberal, fair, community driven sector is our crowning glory. Where we have the potential to fall down is when we decide to keep our outrage at the state of things unfocussed, when we rant without being really informed and when we say things rashly that might give those in a position influence cause to disengage with our organisations. Worse, when we push aimless or poorly thought out campaigns, that make us look soft, ill-informed or out of touch. Or when the wrong throw away comment in a public place or on social media makes a potential ally draw away from our cause.
Yes, the conversation that sparked this thought-piece was uncomfortable and resulted in an argument based on political discourse that I would rather have not had. However, on a higher level I had the opportunity to think about how I display my political values and how we can all dissipate these when influencing as representatives of the third sector.