Well, I really couldn’t let this one go, could I? David Cameron’s new minister for civil society, Brooks Newmark, suggested that charities should stay out of the realm of politics. He added “The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.”
Well – where to begin? I’ve blogged before about charities and politics when people got in a huff about Oxfam’s Perfect Storm poster. But it’s worth going over these arguments again.
Brooks Newmark thinks that charities should “help others” and keep out of politics. But you can’t do one without the other. Let’s take the nation’s favourite topic, foodbanks. Someone comes to the foodbank in need of help and they are given a wonderful parcel of food which will last them three days, to get them through whatever crisis brought them in. Is this really all that foodbanks can and should do? Certainly, foodbanks themselves don’t think so. They ask what has caused the crisis and try to address this need. The most rapidly rising cause for people attending foodbanks is having their benefits sanctioned. The Trussell Trust (along with Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty) investigated and found not a host of people who couldn’t be bothered to fill in forms and attend interviews, but a series of punitive measures implemented without flexibility or human understanding for genuine matters such as bereavement, illness, or even the inability to be in two places at once. Actually, giving out food parcels isn’t helping people, in the long term. What would really help people would be a welfare system implemented fairly but with compassion. And so, the three charities produced a report, Below the Breadline, which launched at the same time as a Channel 4 programme, Breadline Kids, and that notorious Perfect Storm poster.
This is certainly getting involved with politics. If any charity wants to help people, then it really must get involved with the causes of whatever need they are trying to help. It’s the old adage about not getting so focused on pulling people out of the river that no-one goes upstream to find out who is pushing them all in. Unless we look at causes, we’re not really helping. Brooks Newmark suggested donors don’t want their money to be used for politics. But how many donors want to keep on giving, year after year, to a problem that keeps on getting bigger because no-one is addressing the cause? I would go as far as to say that not campaigning to address causes and structures results in collusion. Does feeding families in crisis mean that the government can get away with cutting off a family’s income because at least they won’t starve? Are foodbanks just propping up an unjust, unsustainable policy?
Apparently later, Brooks Newman issued a statement saying that he really meant “party politics”, but even this doesn’t bear scrutiny. What does it mean? And why shouldn’t charities be party political? If criticising government policy, as Oxfam did, is party political, then charities will have to be party political. And if one party’s policies promote the agenda of the charity, then shouldn’t the charity voice its support?
But it was the knitting comment that finished me off. What a patronising way of describing the work that so many charities, day in, day out. And what a failure to understand the creative and political potential of knitting. Brooks Newmark must have been on holiday in August when 7 miles of pink knitting was stretched out between Aldermaston and Burghfield to campaign against nuclear weapons. He’s clearly never heard of guerrilla knitting, or seen any of the work of the Craftivist Collective. Or even the wonderfully creative knitted bikes made for the Tour de France. Knitting is subversive because its slow, hand-made nature rejects the instant, fast technological fix of capitalism. Protesting with knitting is thoughtful and peaceful and beautiful. I’ll be getting out my needles later and knitting Brooks Newmark a piece of my mind.