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General election: what now for your advocacy and campaigning?

The UK goes to the polls on Thursday 12 December 2019.

Parliament will be dissolved imminently and the civil service will be restricted in what it can do. So how will your organisation’s on-going advocacy work be affected? And how can you use the election as a campaigning opportunity?

Here is some information and tips on how the government works during an election period and how you can continue your advocacy and campaigning efforts.

Suspended parliament and restricted civil service

There are restrictions on what the government can and can’t do in the period immediately before an election, commonly known as “purdah”. These restrictions formally take effect when parliament is dissolved at 00:01 on Wednesday 6 November 2019 and continue until election day. If the election doesn’t lead to a clear result and there is a hung parliament, purdah continues until negotiations conclude and a new government is agreed.

The restrictions are enacted to avoid “inappropriate use of official resources” and to ensure the impartiality of the civil service. During the election, the government will continue to govern, and ministers remain in post. But all staff are required to ensure that public resources aren’t used for party political purposes and mustn’t undertake any activity that could call into question their political impartiality.

The restrictions apply to UK civil servants, minsters, special advisers, and the board members and staff of arms-length bodies. Special advisers must resign from the civil service if they wish to campaign.

Officially, civil servants can work on on-going policy development, but can’t make significant decisions or initiate new policy. Ministers usually observe discretion in announcing new or long-term initiatives. Decisions on policy will be delayed until after the election, unless they are unavoidable or delaying them will be detrimental to the national interest or waste public money. This is in case a new government might want to take a different approach to the present government.

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For civil servants working on delivery rather than policy, things will continue as usual. Announcements and other government communications (including social media) are also restricted.

What to do now

The next few days between the election being called and the purdah rules kicking in, commonly known as the “washup”, is a very busy period when the government tries to tie up as many loose ends as possible.

We recommend that you get in contact with any civil servants you have been working with as soon as possible to find out their plans and how the restrictions will impact their work during purdah. For those working on policy, purdah can be a welcome chance to work on projects that may otherwise end up on the back burner, so this is also a good chance to raise these issues with your government contacts.

Campaigning during a general election

There are laws governing what civil society organisations can and can’t do in the lead up to an election. You should familiarise yourself with the rules, but, most importantly, you should continue campaigning.

Campaigning is a normal and legitimate part of what Bond members do, and it is vital that organisations continue to speak out during the electoral period. Not only is the election an opportunity to influence future policy in the UK, but there are risks associated with not campaigning as you could fail to secure the changes you want to see.

The Lobbying Act sets out rules for charities, NGOs and campaign groups undertaking public campaign activities in the run up to elections, known as the regulated period. The Electoral Commission recently updated its guidance on the Lobbying Act and we have a detailed guide to help you understand the Lobbying Act, plus a page of FAQs and other useful resources.

You should also read the Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning and political activity guidance for charities (CC9), which applies from the announcement of an election to the date of the election itself. At elections, charities must be, and be seen to be, independent from party politics. To comply with this guidance, you should ensure:

  1. Your campaigning and political activity supports the delivery of your charitable purposes.
  2. Your organisation maintains independence from political parties and candidates, and that any involvement with political parties is balanced.
  3. That any support you give to specific policies advocated by political parties helps your organisation deliver its charitable purposes.
  4. That if you have a similar policy position to that of a political party, you should stress your independence from the political party and do nothing to encourage support for the party.
  5. You do not explicitly compare your views with those of political parties or candidates, or encourage people to vote for or against parties that support or do not support these views.
  6. If you publish a manifesto, it must encourage political parties to adopt certain policies or raise the public profile of your issues, not influence voters.
  7. If you host a public meeting or hustings with candidates, you should try to invite candidates from across the political spectrum.
  8. You do not give support or funding to a political party, candidate or politician.

Find out more

Bond will host a webinar with NCVO and the election law specialists Bates Wells in mid-November on the new Electoral Commission guidance for non-party campaigners during general elections. Make sure you sign up to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter for news on how to sign up.

If you have any questions on charity law on elections or the Lobbying Act please, contact Alice Whitehead on [email protected].