Charities should look beyond the 2013 Lobbying Act to focus on the best way of using the political process to support their charitable objectives without becoming tangled in red tape. The Act is a Kafkaesque piece of legislation which offers comedians an endless source of absurdities – in fact, the Act’s greatest contribution could be material for a benefit comedy show for the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement which is monitoring its impact.
Impact on democracy
More seriously, the Act has damaged political engagement by civil society in at least three ways, and created a few opportunities which could outweigh the short-term harm.
The damaging effect of the Act is considerable, and includes:
- The huge amount of time and money wasted on the Act: this includes a massive effort lobbying against the Bill as it went through Parliament, meetings with the Electoral Commission, legal fees, accounting for on “regulated campaign activity” (and working out the difference from non-regulated activity);
- The “chilling effect” on political engagement reported by the Commission on Civil Society, which has inhibited many organisations from engaging with the election process and made it very difficult to work together, because every member of a joint campaign that spends more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, must register with the Government, even if their individual regulated campaign spending is less;
- The distraction from bigger issues, not least the lobbying by wealthy individuals, companies and newspapers which could seriously affect their work.
A central absurdity of the Act is that newspaper owners are almost completely free to campaign on whatever they want – against press regulation, membership of the European Union, bankers’ bonuses, windfarms, GM crops, immigration, bacon sandwiches, big tits on page 3 – while charities are severely restricted in advocating their objectives. Charities have very clear and sensible guidelines on advocacy and campaigning. All the Act does is add masses of sticky red tape and distractions. Rich individuals like Lords Oakshott, Ashcroft or Haughey can shower unlimited sums on parties, provided the amounts are reported and parties manage their spending within limits during election periods, which is shorter than imposed on charities).
Opportunities for charity campaigners
But the Act has brought charities and pressure groups together in a way that no other piece of legislation has done. This alone creates the potential to have a much bigger impact on politics, particularly after the election.
Three opportunities created by the Act could have lasting benefits for civil society:
1st, run a charity Lobbying Act Comedy Show, with as many stand-ups and performers as possible to send up the whole farcical pantomime: a great deal of the Electoral Commission material on the Act is unintentionally funny, providing an endless amount of comic material. The show could be publicised by sending the two parties responsible a bill (the “Lobbying Bill”) itemising the costs incurred.
2nd, charities should rise above the election to tell the stories and show the big picture about the causes they are fighting for: the public trust charities to tell the truth much more than they do politicians, so they should not contaminate their reputation by associating with politicians. Some charities are telling politicians to remove pictures and any references of themselves with beneficiaries of charities from their websites and campaign literature as a result of the Act.
The High Pay Centre started the year by celebrating “Fat Cat Tuesday” on 12 January when Britain’s top executives surpassed the average UK worker’s earnings for the entire year. Oxfam got global publicity by reporting that the wealth of the richest 1 per cent will overtake that of the other 99 per cent of people next year. Charities working with the poor, homeless and disenfranchised have heart-rending stories to tell about the state of Britain today: they should tell it as it is, and help the poor themselves speak up. Peace charities should show the horrors and cost of conflict, as well as talk about countries and people who are making peace. And if there are states anywhere else in the world where local or national governments are doing a good job, then let’s hear about them so that we can look and learn.
Don’t ask politicians for anything: most of their promises are worthless anyway. Whatever the cause, present the evidence, enable beneficiaries to speak for themselves, and let the election take its course.
During the election politicians are in listening mode. They will hear from their constituents, and if charities are speaking truth about what is happening and it resonates with the public, all well and good. But steer clear of any reference to the election, legislation, policy, parties, calls to action or anything that can “reasonably be regarded as intended to influence how people vote” (see the comedy guidelines). Focus on evidence of the consequence and root causes of problems you are addressing all year round – unless you are a membership organisation addressing your own members. In this case
“Your organisation’s official members or ‘committed supporters’ (people who support your organisation in the same way as members) will not be considered part of the public.” For example, in the 2010 election 2,500 members of Citizens UK took part in the fourth Leaders Debate on 3 May 2010 and would not be ‘regulated campaign activity’ covered by the Act because they are not open to the public. Similarly, “Material you send to members or committed supporters does not count as election material, as long as it deals with issues that fall within your organisation’s aims and objectives.” (Comedy Guidelines, p11) Thus Citizens UK has worked with their members to produce their Manifesto 2015, but provided they spend less than £20,000 on uploading it to their website or promoting it to the public, it is not regulated.
3rd prepare for the aftermath: politicians will spend the next few months discrediting each other and making unbelievable boasts about what they will do, and as a result mainstream party politics will shrivel further. This could be tragic for politics, because it is a difficult and necessary business, but it could also open the political system to a more diverse, inclusive and discursive form of politics. The election could be followed by a hung parliament or precarious minority government, but politics will go on and charities will be freed from the Lobbying Act until the next election. Governments with small majorities are much more sensitive to public pressure and reliant on public support, all of which creates opportunities for civil society.
So what can charities and civil society do to create a more inclusive politics after the election?
First, during and after they election they can engage and educate their members and active supporters on issues raised during the election. My previous blog discussed some of the ways in which political education can contribute to democracy during the election.
Second, they can prepare the ground for campaigns immediately after the election, on 8 May (let’s call it “civil society democracy day”, C-Day). If charities and pressure groups are determined to influence politicians, then start on 8th May.
This could be difficult if the party with most seats in Parliament has a mandate which is explicitly opposed to your aims, so it is important to monitor party policy and do your best to warn them off making such commitments, but winning commitments from parties before an election may not be as useful as it used to be.
Obviously charity campaigns should be within their charitable objectives and meet Charity Commission guidelines, but above all they must have support of donors and the public so that they enhance rather than harm your reputation. US research shows that high impact non-profits combine advocacy and service[i]1 (see Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant), so charities should not shy away from purposeful, forceful and relevant campaigning to support their mission.
Third, and perhaps most important, charities and civil society organisations should make the case for political participation and equality of influence as public goods. The most disadvantaged groups in society should be able to have an equal and effective voice. The corporate sector and professional lobbyists have enormous influence on the political process, through funding of parties, politicians, think tanks and media ownership as well as direct lobbying, secondment of staff and social interaction all year round. Lobbying is a necessary part of the political process, to ensure that government is aware of the potential impact of decisions on different groups. The key issues are transparency and equality of influence. The Lobbying Act failed to deal with transparency, so this remains a key campaign issue, and no government has addressed the issue of equality of influence in the political process.
Creating greater equality of influence
For democracy to be real, citizens should be able to have an equal voice in decision-making. For this they need to know how the system works and how to influence it – which is why businesses employ lobbyists and charities employ campaigners. Most people do not have that opportunity. In the past people joined political parties to campaign on their behalf, but the hollowing out of parties, the take-over by large donors, the rise of professional politicians, and the falling trust in politicians, means that most people no long identify with a political party.
This creates immense dangers for democracy. Civil society can’t fill the gap created by the collapse of political parties, but they can enable people to have a more effective voice about the issues that concern them. They also give people opportunities to develop the confidence, contacts, skills and knowledge to take on civic responsibilities and participate in politics. And they can campaign for practical political education. I have discussed the case for learning for democracy and the Democracy Matters “Declaration for Democracy” in previous blogs.
In my view one of the most important campaigns for civil society is for people to be able to take part in politics as equal citizens and strengthen democracy from the bottom up. For this, practical political education can have a vital role.
Titus Alexander is convenor of Democracy Matters and is writing a book on Pedagogy of Power: Learning for Democracy (forthcoming) Contact: email@example.com
[i]Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant 2008, John Wiley