Under Threat – 4 challenges to charities speaking out

I’m still digesting the full implications of the election results, but one (of the many) areas that I’m concerned about, is the space that charities and NGOs will have to speak out under the new government.
Remember those quotes about how charities should ‘stick to the knitting’, well that view just got more prominent in Government.
Now you might expect me to be an advocate for the importance of charities campaigning and I am. But looking across history I can see numerous example of how charities and NGOs have come together to push for change, as Ed Miliband rather eloquently put it during the election campaign;
And that’s the way change has always happened. Through people.
100 years ago, the trade unions joined together and campaigned for workers’ rights and they won.
70 years ago, the working people of our country joined together and campaigned for an NHS and they won.
40 years ago, working women joined together and campaigned to legislate for the principle of equal pay and they won.
20 years ago, the gay and lesbian community of our country joined together and campaigned for equality in law and they won.
And in all these movements and moments, when people asked who will fight this fight? They didn’t wait. They didn’t say it was up to someone else. They said “call on me”.
But one thing that could change over the next 5 years could be the space that charities and NGOs have to campaign. So what are the actual threats? Here are 4 potential challenges that every campaigner here in the UK needs to be concerned about.
1. Adjusting to the Lobbying Act – it’s now highly unlikely to be repealed and while Lord Hodgson is undertaking a review for the government of its impact (something we got thanks for campaigning) which could lead to some small changes, but the Lobbying Act is here to stay and we’ll need to adjust to it in future elections.
2. Reviewing CC9 – this is an important but little known piece of guidance that allows charities to campaign when they’re doing so in line with their charitable purpose. While the exact timetable is yet to be announced, expect it to happen in the next 12 months and don’t expect it to be a review that expands the space we have to campaign. This is going to be a critical fight.
3. Paying to protest – before the election, campaigners saw off a push from the Metropolitan Police to charge climate change campaigner to pay for the policing a peaceful march they were organising in Westminster. With further pressure on police budgets, expect to see the Police push this again. I’ve already heard of at least one event this could effect. While their are massive pressures on police budgets, it’d be a worrying precedent if we’re expected to pay to protest. With the London elections coming up, we need to be pushing for all the candidates to agree that the Metropolitan Police shouldn’t charge us for our right to protest.
4. Reporting on a charity’s total expenditure on campaigning activities – this was consulted on by the Charity Commission last year but they decided not to pursue it. Expect it to come back again, and while it might seem little like a small issue compared to the others above, my concern is that it could a) lead us to a situation like that in Canada where charities can only spend up to 10% of their income on campaigning activities and b) would mean charities have to spend more time to monitor this, potentially putting off smaller organisations from getting involved in advocacy, as they simply don’t have the capacity .
So what can be done about it?

  • Become aware – all these threats are happening around us, become aware of them and start to think about the possible implications for your campaigning. If your on a board of an organisation that campaigns you want to be thinking about what these changes could mean for your organisation.
  • Organise – campaigns are forming to respond to many of these challenge, and we know this works because it was thanks to campaigning on the Lobbying Act that we got some important concessions. Campaigners from a vast range of organisations need to get involved, campaigning on these issues, but its a classic example of a tragedy of the commons, we’re all affected by the changes but its not in any single organisations interest to campaign to stop the changes. If you in London, come along to this meeting on Monday 1st June to find out more about how we can organise together.
  • Be prepared to stand in solidarity – not every campaigning organisation will affected by these changes. If you don’t organise marches, parliamentary lobbies or demonstrations you might not be concerned about pay to protest, but it’s the precedent that should concern us all. First it’s protests, but what next? Hand-ins? Parlimentary petitions? We need solidarity between campaigners on these issues, like we saw last year when concerns were raised about a tweet from Oxfam that led to 70 organisations signing onto a letter in The Times. 

Using your voice as well as your vote – 7 things you need to know about election campaigning

I need to start with a confession. I’m an election geek! My fascination with elections has taken me to the US to campaign for President Obama and I know an unhealthy amount about the electoral systems in countries around the world.

Obama campaign
Out on the doorstep for President Obama in 2012

For campaigners, they’re hugely exciting – they engage people in politics and they’re opportunities to shape the agenda for the next government.
With just 120 days or so to go until the next UK General Election, there is a huge amount that we don’t know about what the outcome will be on May 7th.
That’s a huge opportunity and challenge for campaigners, we could get another Coalition Government, we don’t know which parties will end up in the TV debates, and what will happen in Scotland, with UKIP and the Green Party.
At the same time, election campaigns are getting more and more sophisticated, with parties using micro-targeting to reach specific groups, and social media working alongside the traditional ground game (think people knocking on doors) and air game (think TV news headlines).
For campaigners preparing for the election in May there are 7 things you need to be thinking about.
1 –Remember Charities can be political but not party political
Its too easy to think of politics as something that is just about different parties, but it’s not, politics is about the choices societies make and we have a stake in them being the right choices – including challenging vested interests.
If it wasn’t for campaigners engaging in politics, we wouldn’t have an arms trade treaty, equal marriage, climate change act, and much more.
Thanks to the Lobbying Act there is lots of talk about if charities should get involved in politics, but the short answer is yes.
As charities, you can’t engage in party politics, that is supporting one candidate over another, or providing an endorsement to one but not another, but we can, indeed we’re encouraged to engage in politics.
As we get ready for May, every campaigner should check out the guidance from the Electoral Commission on the Lobbying Act and the Charity Commission (Bond also has some helpful guidance) but that shouldn’t stop you from campaigning.
Countdown Clock at CCHQ
2 – Start now
Walk into the HQ of all of the main parties and you’ll see countdown clocks on their walls. For them the election has already started, and it’s got a fixed deadline – 10pm on May 7th, the point when polls close and nothing else can be done.
At the moment, in most constituencies’ candidates from any of the parties that hope to have a chance of winning will have been selected. For those candidates the most precious commodity they have is time, and as they get closer to the election, they’ll be thinking more and more about how they use their time to ensure they’re speaking to voters. Right now, candidates are busy, but not as busy as they will be in a few weeks time.
Come the ‘short’ campaign, which starts on 30th March, candidates are moving from one event to other, and they’re already starting to plan now for then, getting going now means your campaign has a chance of establishing itself before its just another event or activity in an already busy day.
3 – Everything is Local
There are few better ways of getting a sense of what people are thinking about than knocking on the doors as part of a party canvass, and as much as I’d like the top issues to be global poverty, climate change and world peace. More often than not its parking, poo, potholes, pavement and flytipping or welfare issues – housing, immigration, benefits. Occasionally global issues, but they’re rare.
For any campaign that means making your issues local as well, that could be making connections to local figures or events, ensure your statistics are localised or finding local figures to speak out in support of your issue.
Whatever you can do to demonstrate the breadth of local support for you campaign the better. Remember most candidates are thinking about events to attend alongside two axis the likelihood of those present actually voting and the likelihood of someone in the room voting for them, so make sure
Make it easy for candidates to support you
4- Make it Easy
Most candidates are keen to engage, they want to meet with voters, but remember they are time poor, so make it easy for them to engage with you and also their office staff. Behind ever candidate is a team who will be working hard and often making the decision about what events the candidate does and doesn’t attend.
Provide candidates with something in return for engaging with your campaign, the opportunity to meet local voters, a photo they can send to the local paper or thanks on twitter.
Also think about the medium of your message, most candidates will tell you that they’re already being inundated with emails and briefing papers, so what about video messages or infographic.
Finally, think about how they can really support your campaign – what can they actually do. Don’t ask a candidate to vote a particular way in Parliament if they’re not (yet) an MP.
5 – If they won’t come to you, go to them
One of the exciting thing about the upcoming election is I’m expecting more platforms that ever before to ask candidates the questions you want.
As well a the traditional hustings, often organised by local churches, this election most candidates are on twitter and looking to engage, local papers will run election specials, the growth of online localised communities holding ‘ask the candidate’ discussions or raising it when someone comes to knock on your doorstep. Whatever you can ‘get on the record’ now could invaluable come May 8th.
Heading into May, watching how parties respond to pledges is going to be interesting. Lots of campaigns ask candidates to sign pledge to show their support for an issue. It can an effective tool, but one I suspect many candidates will now approach with caution, especially as the possibility of a coalition government means MPs can be even less certain about what they can promise.
Amnesty Campaigners meeting with Caroline Lucas MP
6 – Plan for May 8th
The election may be over, but the hard work for whoever is elected has just begun. Be ready to follow up with those who’ve been elected, politicians are often accused of only appearing near an election but can the same be said of campaigners?
Offer to come to meet with them to brief them on the issue, write to them, reminding them of what the said in the campaign and don’t overlook getting in touch with the candidates that weren’t successful – remember that they might be candidates in another election.
7 – Vote
I hope that most campaigners vote. I have a rule on election day, that you can’t show up to help get out the vote if you’ve not already voted. If we want to participate in campaigning, we need to vote. If your not sure you’ll be in your constituency on election day, sign up for a postal vote here.