A demonstration congregates
A demonstration congregates.

Protecting the right to campaign

Campaigners had a tremendous impact on the UK government’s responses to Covid-19 in the first year of the pandemic.

From the TUC’s campaign for furlough, which saved 11 million jobs, to the People’s Vaccine Alliance’s campaign for fairer access to vaccines globally, campaigners’ ensured the responses were more compassionate, effective and inclusive. They have done all this in the face of new, significant challenges.

As we enter the second year of the pandemic, we need to reset the relationship between campaigners and decision makers.

Barriers to campaigning

The pandemic added a new dimension to an already difficult political and operating environment. Legislation such as the Lobbying Act and clauses in government contracts that limit campaigning are creating a chilling effect on civil society.

Campaigners seeking to hold the government to account or confront injustice have faced a challenging – even antagonistic – political environment. Statements from high profile figures have contributed to a narrative that undermines and delegitimises campaigning.

While charities are allowed to campaign and take controversial positions that further their mission, they are criticised for doing so. For example, organisations such as Oxfam1, the National Trust2 and Runnymede Trust3 have all been reported to the Charity Commission for being “political”.

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There are two significant reforms being considered in the UK that will undermine campaigning further. Proposed limits to judicial review – an important means for ordinary people to take government and public bodies to court – undermines access to justice. And the new Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill – currently in committee stage – will impose significant restrictions on the right to protest.

Impact of constraints

These barriers have three important implications:

  • Civil society is deterred from campaigning and we risk losing the voices of local communities and marginalised groups.
  • Democratic values and institutions are undermined, accountability is reduced.
  • A disconnect between the views of politicians and the public is revealed.

63% of campaigners said politicians have become more negative to campaigning in 2020. 54% said the public are becoming more positive about campaigning.

A framework to protect the right to campaign

We need to reset the relationship between campaigners and decision makers. We need the government to recognise the value of campaigning in making politics better, institutions more effective and society stronger.

To this end, we urge the government to create a new framework that protects the right to campaign. This framework should enshrine the following principles:

  1. Campaigning is a crucial part of promoting and protecting open societies, democracy, transparency and human rights. The rights to freedom of assembly and association and to freedom of expression and information are protected by the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and other national and international instruments.
  2. Campaigning is a legitimate and necessary activity for civil society, including registered charities and organisations that receive public funds. It tackles the root causes of problems and delivers social change. All people and organisations have a right to campaign.
  3. Campaigning seeks to challenge injustices, hold the powerful to account and deliver social change. In this way, campaigning is political but campaigning by registered charities and non-partisan civil society organisations is never party political.
  4. Campaigning is carried out by a range of different people and groups, using a variety of tools and tactics to make change happen. Campaigners should be able to choose the most appropriate and effective means, including protest – a right enshrined in international law.
  5. Campaigning requires a supportive and enabling legal, regulatory and political environment. Democratic values, processes and institutions are the foundation of an enabling environment, fostering debate and conducive to a vibrant civil society.

If you are interested in helping make this happen, please consider joining the Civil Society Voice (CSV) network. CSV is an informal network of organisations that works to protect and promote the right to campaign in the UK. It acts as a space for sharing information and coordinating collective action on restrictions on the right to campaign. Get in touch to find out more.