How should campaigners engage with the Independent Group?

A lot has been written – and there’s much, much more to come – about the political implications of the new Independent Group of MPs.

I want to explore a more practical couple of questions – what does it mean for campaigners – and how should they engage with new parties or political groupings?

Let’s take the example of mental health campaigners and Luciana Berger MP.

Ms Berger has been a prominent advocate on mental health issues over the past few years. And she has publicly teamed up with Conservative MP, Johnny Mercer, and Lib Dem MP, Norman Lamb, to put cross-party pressure on the government alongside mental health organisations.

While she will undoubtedly remain committed to this cause, her value to these campaign groups has now diminished significantly. And they’ll need to swiftly find other Labour champions to demonstrate cross-party backing for their calls.

Many other campaigners will have had similar relationships with these 11 independent MPs on their causes. (Heidi Allen being a prime example – with one Treasury official describing her as “the most expensive backbencher in history” due to her campaigns for greater funding for public services).

I’m not suggesting that these ties should be cut – but they will now carry a very different position in Parliament.

Campaigners will need to take this into account – and consider whether new champions are needed, particularly if they’re at a critical juncture of their campaign.

Now turning to whether and how campaigners should engage with the independent group – particularly if they become a fully fledged political party – my watchwords are balance and caution.

As I wrote in this blog, the Institute of Economic Affairs recently fell foul to the Charity Commission rules on political balance – reminding all charities who campaign of the importance of maintaining their independence – and to influence and involve as broad a range of political parties as possible.

In the short term, this means that the Independent Group of MPs need to remain on campaigners’ hit list – receiving emails and invites like any other MP.

In the longer term, if they’re going to become a political party, then campaigners will need to consider how they’ll influence their manifesto, whether to attend their party conference (if they have such a thing), and how to work with candidates in the run up to the next election.

Most of this will be straight forward for campaigners to navigate, but here’s where the caution comes in.

At this stage none of us know the long term future of the Independent Group.

Is it just a flash in the pan?

Or is it a complete re-ordering of our political system?

Or, more likely, is it something in between?

I think there’s a real risk for some campaigners that they’ll be tempted to jump into bed with the Independent Group, potentially get too close, and as a result damage their own independence and relationship with other parties.

Why? Well, look at the cadre of politicians who’ve joined the Independent Group. It’s fairly easy to imagine them working for or leading our larger charities – or heading up a public affairs agency.

Yes, a lot of campaigners are very comfortable with the Corbyn-led Labour Party – and we shouldn’t neglect to recognise the huge number of campaigners in the sector who come from the Lib Dems – but many will be attracted to this new grouping and need to exercise caution as a result.

The Independent Group will undoubtedly be looking for platforms to advance their agenda.

They’ll be looking for individuals and organisations to give them credibility by backing their policies.

Campaigners will need to make sure that they don’t get used and abused in this process.

And they need to make sure that they don’t use up precious resource and capacity undertaking work with a political entity that could potentially crash and burn in the coming months.

That’s not to say that campaigners shouldn’t interact with the Independent Group at all – but they need to consider whether they’re giving opportunities or seeking to influence other parties in a similar way.

The recent example of Katie Ghose’s exit as chief exec of Women’s Aid is useful to consider, when thinking about how campaigners interact with new parties.

Ms Ghose has had to step down after complaints about her comments about UKIP, when speaking at their party conference as CEO of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) in 2015.

Now the ERS isn’t a registered charity, so the Commission’s guidance on campaigning and political activity don’t actually apply. But given the ERS prides itself on its independence, many of the guidance’s principles are still important.

The fact that ERS were at the UKIP conference – and holding a fringe meeting there – should not be a problem. As a former ERS employee (albeit over 15 years ago), I know that ERS has a presence at lots of party conferences (indeed it’s the only organisation that I’ve gone to Plaid Cymru conference with). So, in my view, they can clearly demonstrate that they take a balanced approach.

The question is whether Ms Ghose’s comments at the meeting, praising Ukip’s “passion for a new way of doing politics” as well as Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage, strayed into territory where it appeared that the ERS were endorsing the party itself.

If the ERS was a charity, then it would need to be careful about breaching the Commission’s guidance which says that charities “must not give support or funding to a political party, nor to a candidate or politician.”

It’s probably stretching things a bit far to suggest that praising the party in this way necessarily indicates an endorsement – especially as you can imagine similar comments from the ERS for electoral reformers in other parties.

My point is that this case illustrates the need for campaigners to keep balance and caution front of mind when pursuing relationships with new parties like the Independent Group.

Given the Independent Group’s likely desperation to be promoted by campaigning organisations that often have high levels of support or trust from the public, the risk of co-option is high.

So should campaigners engage with them?

Absolutely.

But there’s also a good reason to treat them with kid gloves as they start to establish themselves.