Guiding has always been a strictly non party-political organisation. But, there is more to politics than just the politicians in parliaments or council chambers and their decisions and pronouncements. Every issue under the sun is, in it’s own way, political. Starting an educational charity for girls was political. Encouraging girls to learn new skills and try new activities – was and is political. So in that sense, Guiding has always done ‘small p’ politics, consciously or otherwise.
What we’ve long avoided, however, is the so-called “big-‘P’” politics. Party politics, issues which the individual Political Parties find contentious, topics which are liable to be divisive amongst Girlguiding UK’s members, or amongst the public at large. Or at least, we have avoided them until the past three or four years. Sure, the Junior Council over several decades looked at a range of controversial topics from within Guiding – but that was mainly closed-doors stuff with limited publicity outside Guiding. Whereas in the last few years strenuous efforts have been made to get such discussions publicised in the mass media. Now, our 14-26-year-old members are receiving a seemingly constant stream of questionnaires, regularly seeking their opinions on one controversial topic after another, with the results then rapidly published in mass media, backed by press releases and TV appearances (strictly from those within that age group, natch). The older adults who actually organise the questionnaires and coach those who will appear in the media - stay away from the cameras.
The first problem – is one of misrepresentation. These surveys are invariably presented as what ‘Girlguiding UK’, as an organisation, thinks. As in the whole organisation. In spite of the fact that only a narrow age range within the membership of the organisation is ever given the opportunity to participate in the surveys, and only a small number of members within that age range receive the surveys, and an even smaller number yet within that group respond to them. And - it assumes that all those who do choose to answer the surveys do so seriously, representing their own personal thoroughly considered and sincerely held beliefs and experiences, with no ‘joke’ responses, no influence from peers or others, and no ‘what I think I ought to say rather than what I actually think’ responses submitted. Typically, there are fewer than 2000 responses in total, and often significantly fewer than that - making it hard to judge whether the views of this small number of responders are representative across the whole membership of the organisation from age 5 to 115 – or are just those of a small group within a very narrow age range. It’s also not clear whether there is a representative spread of geography, age range, ethnic background, social background, disability or other relevant categorisation among those surveyed or those who respond - or not. Maybe if the survey covered a wider span of the membership, the results would be much the same anyway, maybe they would be different, we just don’t know. And I fully accept that misleading headlines are potentially down to how media choose to publish the information which is provided rather than necessarily a lack of clarity on the part of the original author – nevertheless it isn’t made clear, and anyway it’s naïve to think the journalists will differentiate even if they are aware of the limited consultation - the headlines on Guiding’s own website don’t make it clear to the initiated who exactly was and wasn’t consulted, far less lay people who are understandably unaware of Guiding jargon. Nevertheless, accidental or not, it’s still misrepresentation - anything published by “Girlguiding UK” should either be representative of the views of the majority of all the members of that organisation or a representative cross-section of it - or it should be made explicitly clear exactly which parts of the membership it is representative of, and which it is not. Otherwise, it just presents the critics with a stick to beat us with which can discredit the whole thing and put all the work to waste.
The second problem – is the want of a ‘devil’s advocate’ in the drafting of these questionnaires, and especially in drafting the related press releases when the results are launched. The authors are so keen to present every possible positive argument they can muster to support their findings, that they are not in the least selective about which ones are good arguments to field which will strongly support the message - and which arguments are weak and better avoided as having too much potential to backfire and damage the message. As a result, instead of one clear, straightforward and easily-defended point being made by a report and a press release backed up by one or two clear and easily-defended arguments, which the press can easily tweak and publish with little effort - the potentially powerful key supporting points are diminished by the weaknesses in the umpteen other points fielded to try and back up, weaknesses which are all too easy for any competent journalist or critic to discredit or counter without a second’s pause. To take a recent example, what they wanted to say was that girls should be free to wear the clothes of their choice, and even if those choices happen to be comparatively revealing garments, such clothing choices are no excuse for the girls receiving unwanted attention, particularly sexually-related attention. It remains a current issue certainly, it’s a point many of us could easily agree with and happily support - and it’s one which is already the focus of well-known and respected campaigns such as “Everyday Sexism”. But – they didn’t stick to that one clear point, and that main readily-defendable argument in it’s favour. No, in their rush to try and back up with every available argument regardless of the strength, they foolishly raised the almost-impossible-to-defend issue of school uniform rules. Now as we know, most schools in the UK have a clear and strict dress code, and take active steps to ensure that all their pupils conform to that code up to and including suspension from class. And we also know that most schools have strong parental and local authority support for this. So the examples that were fielded - ‘it should be okay to wear coloured bras under white shirts even if in specific breach of my school’s uniform code’, or ‘it should be okay to wear skirts just as short as the individual might wish as school uniform even if in specific breach of school uniform code’ – were the very arguments which were least likely to be supported by parents and the public at large, who would be far more likely to support the school’s position than the child’s in such cases. By getting sidetracked into the dead-end of school uniform rules, instead of focussing on the strongest arguments only, the point about clothing and sexism was weakened, possibly fatally. They simply became perceived as a bunch of school uniform rebels.
The third problem I perceive – and possibly the largest of all – is that as a charity we only have a limited number of headquarters staff to spread around all the work which our headquarters ideally has to do in order to run a proactive UK-wide viable educational charity for girls based on the principles which are set forth in it’s constitution, and play it’s part in the World Association as the founder member. And only a certain amount of funding available for all the work that is to be done too, hence the comparatively poor salaries paid to it’s staff considering their responsibilities and the office’s central London location. As we know, staff who are focussed on political campaigning cannot also be focussed on fundraising for the organisation and managing it’s financial resources. Or on managing it’s training centres and developing the training facilities for Trainers and unit Leaders. Or on supporting Guiding in the further flung parts of the UK and world that it has responsibility for – Branch Associations, BGIFC, Lones, remote communities in the UK – as well as supporting Guiding abroad. Or on the work we might ideally do as founding members of WAGGGS and hosts to both the World Bureau and a World Centre. Or on working to modernise and develop the programme for each section in light of advances in educational theory, in order to ensure each section’s programme is as effective as possible (for the youth sections and the Adult Leadership section alike) in the modern era and in the future. Or on tracking new developments in policy which affect Guiding – both UK government developments and legal changes, and those which affect the law in the differing devolved UK countries – to ensure Guiding continues to comply with legal requirements and the individual Leaders and Commissioners are kept up to date with what they need to do in order to comply with the law, and take advantage of new initiatives and opportunities arising. Or on working to look after Guiding’s heritage and history for current and future generations, maintaining holdings and acquiring new material, and developing ways in which it can be utilised as an educational resource for it’s members and the public at large. Or on working to create new resources for Leaders on the range of key topics for which the Leaders are constantly asking. Or on working to cater for the needs of those whose first language is not English, and for those who need resources in other formats than printed books in English. Or on working to plan, organise and run UK-wide Guiding events. Hence, both they and we have to ask the big question. What, amongst all of this potential work for headquarters to do, should the priorities of our headquarters staff be? Which of these activities should they fully focus their energies upon? Which should they devote a lesser part of their time on? Which should get only a limited amount of attention and effort? Which should get very little attention? Which should get none at all? We won’t all agree on the priorities and their relative importance – but given that everything can’t be top priority, given that all these things need to be done to some extent and we can’t afford enough staff to do it all from the current budgets - might some of us might consider that political campaigning might not deserve it’s current status as the number 1 priority – perhaps might not be one of the major priorities – perhaps not be a priority at all?