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The role of charity and third sector campaigning in the face of imminent political change

A badge is overlaid on the Catch22 green gradient background with the text "Catch22 Election Watch" and a cross inside a box.

In the run up to the general election taking place on the 4th July, Catch22 will publish its “election series” of blogs. In this week’s blog, Stella Tsantekidou, Head of Policy and Media, considers the role that charities and third sector organisations have during this period, and why it is critical that we keep voters at the heart of all of our campaigns.

During a catch-up with our CEO, Naomi Hulson, she slammed a heavy pamphlet on her desk. We were discussing potential policy ideas for the future and, for a moment, I worried that this massive tome would be my weekend reading. But instead, Naomi, ever the practical leader, wanted me to focus on action rather than more research.

“Do you see this tome, Stella? This is the MacAlister independent review of children’s social care: 278 pages of professional research. This team asked all the tough questions, did in-depth interviews, meticulously gathered data, and produced this comprehensive analysis and suggestions,” she said. I braced myself, thinking she expected me to replicate this effort as Head of Policy. But then she said, “So, we can stop doing research now: we already know what needs to be done. The problem is, we are not doing it!”

Her words were a relief and a revelation. As we’re a month into the General Election campaign, it’s clear from the manifestos released that most parties already know the changes needed to improve lives. Our Catch22 manifesto asks have been largely adopted by the main parties. Labour and the Conservatives both acknowledge the need for employment reforms, though they differ on the approach. Every party sees the importance of a skills strategy for the green and tech revolutions the UK economy needs. They all recognise the necessity of protecting children, and helping young people navigate online spaces safely, providing support for those affected by new types of crime. Even on the support for care-experienced individuals, who are often overlooked, the Liberal Democrats have made a promising commitment to campaign for care experience to be a protected characteristic.

So, what should charities like ours do in the face of imminent political change? Often, we assume complex problems need complex solutions. In reality, our biggest issue is the lack of implementation of known solutions. This is a communication problem. Steve Richards, the political broadcaster and journalist, often says that political leaders need to be teachers. They must take the public with them when enacting change by explaining their actions repeatedly.

There’s a line attributed to political strategist Frank Luntz that political spinners like to repeat to their exhausted politician bosses:

“There’s a simple rule: you say something 10 times, and you hope it’s true. You say it 20 times, and you’re starting to believe it yourself. You say it 30 times, and you want to vomit. And then at some point, the public hears it for the first time.”

This underscores the importance of repetition in political communication. The same applies to campaigning for charities and the third sector. At conferences, round tables, and meetings, we often assume that shared values within our industry mean politicians should automatically agree with us. Unfortunately, that’s not how the real world works. Even though we believe in our cause, we can’t afford to be complacent.

I recall a round table with senior figures from the criminal justice sector where everyone nodded in agreement about reducing the prison population. The consensus was that this was accepted wisdom. But public opinion, influenced by political commentators and broadcasters, often pushes for more prisons and an increased prison population. I’ve even heard calls to double or triple it!

Our role is to take existing research, improve it, update it and, most importantly, not assume it’s already accepted. We must repeat our message, engage in public debates, take meetings with anyone who will listen, and be diligent political educators. We must help politicians explain to their voters the tough decisions they need to take, and the compromises we should and shouldn’t accept.

Elections are an important time for organisations like ours (which work on the front lines of different policy areas), because it means we get to hear from the country on the perception they have of our work: of the criminal justice sector, the children’s sector, the opportunities and threats of the online age, and the future of work. We also get to hear what matters most to the most important of stakeholders: the voters. A voter is not an alien! They are us! They are our service users, our staff members, our funders and our supporters.

So, while we are politically neutral when it comes to the different parties and will gladly work with any and all politicians willing to campaign for people, place and purpose, we must be involved in the political dialogue, and we must be ready to teach as much as we are ready to be taught.