Could charities change politics forever?


by Sunny
31st July, 2007 at 9:05 am    

I came across a small article in this weekend’s Sunday Times and thought and nearly choked on my morning muesli. The government is planning to change legislation to allow charities to ‘become political’. In other words they can make political activity their dominant work if they wish, being currently restricted from any political activity at all.

If I was an activist I’d be creaming myself. In fact, for reasons that will soon eventually become clear, I am creaming myself over this.
Consider this:

1) It would allow major charities to lobby, campaign against or support politicians. Of course it would be beneficial to think-tanks like the Smith Institute, which the Tories are worried about, but this is being short-sighted. Imagine if major memberships groups like Greenpeace or the RSPCA started flexing their muscles and sent their members a rate card of how local politicians did on particular issues? Imagine the bargaining power. The Green Party could set up an alliance with WWF / Greenpeace etc for example and become a serious player.

2) Inevitably this would go even further. Rather than working with single-issue charities to lobby politicians or parties, activists could set up charities explicitly to support a party or an ideological line and ask for donations on that basis. America already has huge Political Action Committees (PACs) which do this (like the liberal group MoveOn.org). We would inevitably see a spurt of charities on both the left and right to raise finance and spend it without being constricted in the way political parties are.

The long-term impact of this legislation could be huge. In the United States the political landscape would be completely different without such regulation. I’m surprised more hasn’t been said about this.


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  1. AsifB — on 31st July, 2007 at 11:11 am  

    Sunny. I’m concerned you are wasting tissues because

    1) Charities have long been allowed to set up wholly owned subsidiaries to do purely political campaigning work (just as they can wholly own trading subsidiaries.) Although rarely used this quasi semantic (its the subsidiary with its slightly different board, not the charity) route has always been open. Campaigning charities like War on Want sometimes set up such subsidiaries, but in the main prefer to push the boundaries of permitted political campigning under their main banner. Provided they can link the work to their charitable objects AND its not overtly party political, then quite a lot is already permissible. THe Blair governement’s extension of charitable activities to include Human rights as a charitable object (ironically) vastly increased the potential for charities to campaign against governemnts and paved the way for Amnesty to consider charitable status.

    2) ‘Inevitably this would go further..’ Well tax breask for civil society is one thing, but heading down the US route of vast spending by PACs sounds like a nightmare to me, not a wet dream.

  2. Bleh — on 31st July, 2007 at 11:31 am  

    I’m all for scrapping of boundaries on speech and actions, but I’m worried by this – as effectively my tax pounds are being used to subsidise political activity, which I don’t want. And I can’t help noticing that this is occuring just as the Smith Institute (who you mention) is being investigated for being in the pocket of Gordon Broon and friends.

  3. Rumbold — on 31st July, 2007 at 11:58 am  

    I am uncomfortable at the idea that I could be subsidizing a bunch of far-right bigots who set up a charity solely dedicated to the deportation of migrants. I think that I prefer the current system. If we go down this road then we will soon get state funding for parties. AsifB and Bleh sum up the issues well.

    I do see why Sunny is excited, I just do not think that the proposed system will work that way in practice.

  4. Leon — on 31st July, 2007 at 12:59 pm  

    Charities have long been allowed to set up wholly owned subsidiaries to do purely political campaigning work (just as they can wholly own trading subsidiaries.)

    Yep. I’m not sure about this, using America as an example probably isn’t the best way to sell this. On first thoughts it seems this will be as much a force for bad as good…

  5. Kismet Hardy — on 31st July, 2007 at 2:12 pm  

    I blame bob geldof. Once upon a time, when we saw tragedies across the world, we turned to our politicians to help sort the mess

    After Live Aid, suddenly raising money for victims went to the hands of phone lines manned by short, ginger rock stars and scary fluffy bears with eye patches, culminating in an actual politician – Al Gore – taking to the rock stage.

    Won’t be long now before the politicians look to Westlife to help us raise money to buy swatters to combat the killer mosquitoes invading our outdoor pub heaters

  6. Bert Preast — on 31st July, 2007 at 2:16 pm  

    Morning muesli? Why am I not surprised.

    I’d have said Greenpeace and many other charities, especially religious ones, have been playing politics for years already.

  7. sonia — on 31st July, 2007 at 2:30 pm  

    we have already been discussing the rise of the non- party ‘network’ ‘non-party’ – an alliance of ngos and charities, getting votes from all those who don’t want to vote for a politician. nice to see the govt. catching up.

  8. MancPaul — on 31st July, 2007 at 2:46 pm  

    This worries me. You could get the catholic church campaigning against gay rights.

    on the other hand I would welcome the RSPCA campaigning against camerons plan to reintroduce legal fox hunting

  9. Katherine — on 31st July, 2007 at 2:50 pm  

    I can’t say I much like this idea. There is of course nothing to stop anyone currently setting up a purely political body and attaching it, in some form or another, to a charitable cause, or vice versa.

    The big difference about actual charities though is that they get tax breaks. And, like others above, I’m not sure how I feel about tax breaks being given to support causes that I don’t like. And the same probably goes for people with entirely different views to my own.

    Also, repeating a point already made, I don’t think modelling our political fundraising laws on those of the US is much of a step in the right direction.

  10. Gump — on 31st July, 2007 at 3:22 pm  

    some pressure groups/protest movements/NGOs/insider groups (that includes charities) already have political aims. many groups already have access to govt.

    people have already said that people can set up political ‘wings’ somehow connected to their organisation.

    The Green Party joining up with Greenpeace may not be a great thing for either side.

    And your point about political parties would be restricted financially whereas charities would not, doesn’t quite make sense. surely political parties would just have charities set up which closely support them and share the same values etc and so money will be sourced that way. that way, as the article points out, financing of political parties will become even moe ‘grey’ as it were.

  11. nodn — on 31st July, 2007 at 3:27 pm  

    Charities already try to get involved in campaigning! Don’t need a law to do that!

  12. Rafter — on 31st July, 2007 at 7:44 pm  

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  13. bikhair aka taqiyyah — on 31st July, 2007 at 7:51 pm  

    Sunny,

    Why are you such a liar? Morning Muesli? We know you be hitting those rocks in the morning. How else are you supposed to stay up and write all those boring articles?

  14. ZinZin — on 31st July, 2007 at 9:52 pm  

    “If I was an activist I’d be creaming myself. In fact, for reasons that will soon eventually become clear, I am creaming myself over this.”

    Goal and open. Shoot away (no pun intended)

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