Dear Agony Aunt. This May sees the General Election in the UK. What is your advice about how Transition groups should respond to elections? How can we raise the issues we would like to see discussed by our local candidates, while retaining the party political neutrality which is such an important element of Transition? It’s something we seem to be discussing a lot in our group”. H.G.
There are four parts to being able to answer this question as usefully as possible:
- Transition and politics
- A Transition Manifesto
- The Lobbying Act
Transition and politics
Transition has always sought to bring about and support change at all levels of scale, but with a particular focus on the local level. Here’s how we at Transition Network talk about our relationship with politics:
Political parties and institutions are part of the landscape within which we’re operating. People within the Transition movement differ in the extent to which they are interested in pursuing change by engaging with the various tiers of government and working through party political channels. For all these reasons, TN will not:
- align ourselves formally or explicitly with any political party
- urge support for any particular party
TN may, from time to time:
- share platforms with representatives of political parties
- explore the potential impact of party policies on the changes we want to see in the world
- publish interviews with, and articles by, party spokespeople.
In deciding what activities to undertake and what information to publish, TN will:
- take a balanced approach which recognises and engages with the full range of political opinions;
- subject politicians, their policies and opinions to critical appraisal guided by our principles and focusing always on the changes we want to see in the world.
Whether your Hub or individual initiative’s position should be exactly the same or not is up to you, but hopefully the above will be a useful starter for your discussions.
Some Transition groups hold their own hustings events in the run-up to the election. It is useful though to bring some Transition thinking to how to run such events, rather than the usual “questions to the panel” format. The hustings event Transition Town Totnes ran before the 2010 election had the following structure:
- The audience introducing themselves to the person next to them: why you’re here; what you’re hoping for from the evening
- An introductory presentation about the work underway in the town being led by TTT, an overview of projects and how they link together. Useful for members of the audience not aware of them and also to bring all of the candidates up to speed
- Then each candidate gets 3 minutes (tightly policed) to respond to that and to talk about their policies in relation to what has been discussed
- Then for 40 minutes the world breaks into a World Cafe-style session, where each candidate sits at a table, and the audience are invited to move around the tables and to ask their questions to the candidates they want to hear from
- Lastly each candidate gets 3 minutes to give any final reflections.
All of the candidates I spoke to after the event found it a refreshingly different format.
Transition Town Tooting are planning a similar event in the run up to the May election too (they also did one in 2012). They plan for their World Cafe session to be more focused, led by three questions. They are:
- What do we value from the past of Tooting?
- What are our fears and concerns as a community?
- What are our hopes for the future?
As well as having the candidates’ voices, they also propose to have other voices, representing young people, and other community voices that need to be heard.
You may find candidates seeking your group’s endorsement, but be very clear that this is not how Transition groups work,, that their role is to endorse policies, not candidates. If someone from your group has put themselves forward for election, it is important to be clear that they are standing in their own capacity, not representing the Transition group.
A Transition Manifesto
You may wish, in your group, to put together a ‘Transition Manifesto’ which you then ask each candidate to respond to. Our advice is that rather than focus on national issues which can prove divisive (fracking, GM, nuclear power etc), and which will instantly position you on the left/right spectrum, focus on local issues, on identifying things that you have found to be the obstacles to your being able to do what you want to do. Some of these will inevitably act as lenses through which to look at national issues. You could forward this to each candidate and ask for their reflections which are then published on your website (although if you are a registered charity, you might need to tread more carefully with this, see below).
The ‘Lobbying Act’
If you are in the UK and part of a Transition group which has taken the step of becoming a charity, it’s worth making yourself aware of the ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014’.
The Lobbying Act has been described by over 160 of Britain’s leading charities as a “gagging act”, with a “chilling effect” on their ability to lobby for change. The Act introduces strict limits on the amounts of money that charities are able to spend on campaigns in the run up to an election. Charities can face prosecution (and a criminal prosecution at that, rather than just a civil prosecution) if they spend more than £9,750 (which includes staff time) promoting any message that could be construed as ‘political’. Unfortunately the wording as to what constitutes ‘political’ is so vague that there is a risk that even describing the policies of the different parties could fall foul of the legislation.
Lord Harries, former Bishop of Oxford and chair of an independent commission that investigated the Act, said that it had had “a chilling effect on organisations speaking out on issues from climate change to assisted dying”. Alex Hilton, Director of housing charity Generation Rent, has argued that “freedom of speech has been done up like a kipper by the Lobbying Act”. As he puts it:
“The frustration we feel at being effectively banned from campaigning during the only time in the electoral cycle when politicians are prepared to listen is shared by many colleagues I have spoken to across the sector”.
It appears we’re stuck with the Lobbying Act for this Election at least. It’s important therefore that the Transition groups it applies to are more mindful than they might previously have been about any activities they might undertake that could fall foul of this legislation. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has produced a really good guide, Charities and the Lobbying Act: Frequently asked questions, which I really recommend.
It’s important also to note that the The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations has taken a much stronger line than the NCVO, calling it a “direct attack on charities’ right to campaign” and stating that it will ignore the legislation. John Downie, director of public affairs at SCVO, told Civil Society News:
“The Lobbying Act is yet another attempt to silence charities and prevent us from giving a strong voice to the most vulnerable people in our communities, and criticising and opposing government policy. We simply won’t stand for it.”
The position your group chooses to take on it is up to you, but tread carefully. Do share any questions, thoughts or concerns in the Comments thread below.