The Electoral Commission released new guidance for non-party campaigners around election campaigning earlier this week.
Whilst the revision of the guidance has been planned for a while, the timing is apt, as a general election appears imminent.
Along with the NCVO and Acevo, Bond has been working with the Electoral Commission to rewrite its guidance. We hope to make it easier for civil society organisations (CSOs) to understand what they need to do under the Lobbying Act.
We welcome the revised guidance and are pleased to see that our feedback to the Electoral Commission has been taken on board. We hope that the further clarity and tone of the guidance will go some way to reassure our members that they can campaign with confidence during elections, whatever the size of their organisation.
However, whilst the guidance is a helpful step forward in the short-term, we still believe that the Lobbying Act itself is undemocratic and that it must be reformed. In the meantime, here are seven ways that the guidance has changed.
It is easier to find the information that you need
Gigantic paper documents seem to be a thing of the past at the Electoral Commission. The guidance is now kept on an online portal which is very pleasant to look at with its minimalist design.
Aesthetics aside, our initial view is that this is going to make life much easier for CSOs – it appears to be easy to navigate and to find what you need
It is easier to understand if rules apply to you
Previously, CSOs had to comb through several long and complicated documents to determine if the guidance applied to them. The revised guidance now states early on that the rules do not apply if you are not going to be spending over £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
This will hopefully reassure smaller charities and CSOs, who don’t tend to spend this kind of money on campaigning, that the guidance does not apply to them.
The tone is more encouraging about campaigning
The revised guidance makes it clear that non-party campaigners are vital to a healthy democracy and active participation should be encouraged in elections. This change of tone and wording was first noted in the recent guidance for the European Parliamentary elections and we are happy to see that it is repeated here. Campaigning during elections is absolutely something that CSOs should be doing.
The purpose test has been clarified
The previous guidance referenced “call to actions” as a lobbying activity. This was problematic for CSOs as all campaigning work involves a call to action, regardless of whether it’s political or not. This has now been changed to “call to action to voters”.
As Douglas Dowell from the NCVO says in his blog for the Electoral Commission, this wording makes it clear that the Electoral Commission is not considering all campaign asks from charities, it is only concerned about explicit or implicit asks to vote for or against candidates or parties.
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The guidance also now talks about “setting out or comparing the merits of the positions of political parties or candidates on a policy” whereas before it only mentioned their positions. This means that it would now be permissible for a CSO to make public the different positions of political parties without registering, but that discussing the merits of these positions would mean they would have to register as a non-party campaigner.
If you are a charity you are less likely to meet the purpose test
One section states that because charities are subject to charity law they are much less likely to pass the purpose test. As directed by the Charity Commission (or Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator in Scotland), charities must remain independent of party politics and must not support a political party or candidates.
While this means that it is much less likely that a charity would ever meet the purpose test, there are occasions where it could. This means that some charities, such as the Quakers for Britain and the RSPCA, have registered as non-party campaigners for previous elections.
Real life case studies help to explain if activity is regulated
The Electoral Commission has worked with three organisations to provide case studies to help CSOs decide if their activity is regulated. These real-life examples should be helpful as they will be directly applicable to the activity most CSOs will be planning during an election period. Further information on applying the purpose test can be found in our FAQs and revised briefing.
The regulated period for non-party campaigners is a year before a planned general election. As we discovered in 2017, a snap election means that the rules are applied retrospectively and CSOs could be penalised for campaigning in the previous year for an election they didn’t know was happening.
The Electoral Commission states here that most campaigning activity undertaken before an election is announced is unlikely to meet the purpose test. The Electoral Commission goes on to say it is worth keeping a record of what you have spent on campaigning at any time so that if an election is called you will have a good idea of what you have already spent – Bond agrees with this.
Further tips on what your organisation can do to make sure it is Lobbying Act compliant can be found in our revised briefing.