The resignation statement from Sayeeda Warsi on twitter yesterday read “With deep regret I have this morning written to the Prime Minister & tendered my resignation. I can no longer support Govt policy on #Gaza.” Although some commentators have questioned if the Government actually has a policy on Gaza, the truth is that a member of the Government until 24 hours ago believe that they do. It is also clear that the Opposition are in disagreement with the Government on the matter of how to deal with the conflict in the Middle East. So with 9 clear months to go before the next General Election, we have a clear divide between a Government and their Opposition regarding how the Foreign Office should handle a major policy.
In her interview with Channel 4 Sayeeda Warsi argued that her resignation was consistent with the role of Faith Champion in the Government that she had been holding. It is clear that faith groups are not of one mind regarding the conflict. However a great many faith groups and humanitarian charities agree with the Labour call for a much stronger intervention with the Israeli Government. It is not unreasonable in such circumstances for these groups to also raise their voices, and add their own call to the Government. However we are 9 months to the next General Election and in January the Government passed the Lobbying Bill which was in 3 parts, part 2 of which related to the work of charities and other groups that are part of civil society. This law is clear that if charities are to engage in campaigning for policies of one Political Party in comparison to other Parties that they need to register under the same sort of bureaucracy as applies to the Political Parties themselves with a range of controls and costs. The need for this registration is intended to be in the year before all General Elections, but for the 2015 General Election only, the period is 9 months.
It is hard to believe that this months Gazan conflict will continue to be making headlines or influence General Election outcomes in May 2015. However none of us can be sure, and perhaps most importantly the MPs whose jobs are at stake cannot be sure. MPs are paid advocates, trained and skilled in campaigning and defeating points of view they disagree with. Some of them have already made their intentions clear, that they will challenge any charity seeking to oppose their policies, and they will test the new Law in the Courts. These men are in many cases personally wealthy and some have very vindictive streaks. Charities are usually bodies where collective decision making and risk aversion on matters of governance are strong drivers. The majority of them will include people whose role is to understand what could go wrong and to alert the other individuals to this. Sadly Charities unlike MPs are not protected by Parliamentary Privilege.
A few days ago a well known Charity commentator wrote this in response to a blog on a separate issue:
“I fear we are already on this road and our timescale to rally and act like a sector on this is running down. The restrictions on what we can talk about in terms of lobbying and campaigning begin in September, because we have a general election in May.”
I don’t believe we can allow our Government to stifle debate and arguments it doesn’t like. Although I would not ever have described myself as Sayeeda Warsi’s biggest fan, the put down of her by George Osborne, shows how badly this Government handles opposition, even by one of their own Peers. Our Charitable sector is not seeking election in 2015. They are not seeking a particular outcome from an election that many of us suspect will deliver another hung Parliament. However their value in society includes the articulation of issues that have a Political dimension. Some of these tend towards policies that are supported by the Left and some towards policies supported by the Right. We are months away from even knowing what the various parties will include in their manifestos, yet from September silence is what is being demanded, to be seen but certainly not heard.
It is vital that we see an early repeal of part 2 of the Lobbying Act, but despite the attempts of Thomas Docherty MP, that will not happen before May 2015. In the meantime our charities will need to watch what they say.