People gather to protest against the energy company Cuadrilla in Balcombe, UK. The company is currently test drilling for oil in the village and it is feared this could lead to potential fracking.

Campaigning during the clampdown

The environment for campaigners is constantly evolving. But recent and proposed laws are restricting campaigns to an unprecedented degree.

From pursuing justice through the courts to protests and boycotts, new legislation is eroding our ability to be heard and bring about social change. However, these laws are the tip of the iceberg and are part of a larger playbook that the UK government is using to undermine civil society and escape accountability.

What’s changing?

A range of new and proposed laws are removing important checks and balances and quashing dissent.

  • From the suffragettes to Make Poverty History, challenging the status quo through protest has been an essential means to highlight injustice and call for change. Yet the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, combined with the Public Order Bill give police and the government a range of new powers to restrict and criminalise protests.
  • Boycotts, divestment and sanctions are also powerful tools for pressurising human rights abusers and drivers of environmental harm, for example helping end apartheid in South Africa or pushing pension funds to divest from fossil fuels. Yet the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Act and proposed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Billcould prevent public bodies from making investment decisions that are not in line with UK foreign policy.
  • Ahead of elections, campaigners play an important role in raising awareness of issues they work on or persuading political parties to adopt favourable policies or positions. With the passing of the Elections Act, rules around campaigning spending are changing, and mean more organisations may be required to register with the Electoral Commission. This could lead to some campaigners taking a step back from any activity that could be potentially regulated – reducing vibrant and inclusive public debates.
  • The Human Rights Act is a foundational piece of law that places a legal duty on public authorities to respect and protect human rights and requires other laws to be applied in a way that respects our human rights. It also allows people to bring legal cases through the courts. Proposals to replace it with a Bill of Rights will reduce the scope and scale of human rights protection.

A clear playbook to delegitimise civil society

These legislative changes are part of a clear playbook the Government is using to delegitimise civil society and reduce accountability.

The government has established a narrative that is stigmatising campaigners and legal professionals – from dismissing people who speak out on social justice issues as being ‘woke’, to labelling environmental campaigners ‘extremists’ and immigration lawyers as ‘leftie’ or ‘activist’.

This is a classic tactic used by governments around the world to undermine the reputation and credibility of campaigners and impartial professionals and diminish public support for their causes.

At the same time, there has been a wave of unfounded complaints to regulators and public attacks on organisations, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Runnymede, National Trust, Barnardo’s and Stop Funding Hate. While none of the complaints were upheld, they distract from the real issues that need attention and the people whose lives are being impacted by harmful policies.

What can campaigners do about it?

In the face of this clampdown, it is easy to feel disheartened. But we all know campaigning is an important part of creating change. So, what can we do about it?

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First, we need to see the big picture and develop our understanding of the overarching implications of restrictions for civil society. While Bond and CIVICUS monitor are tracking restrictions in the UK, it is important for campaigners to know the rules governing campaigning and political activity (CC9). Being confident helps reinforce the legitimacy of our actions.

We need to work together across sectors to find ways to blunt the impact of restrictions while promoting a positive tangible alternative. Last year diverse coalitions emerged to mitigate the harm of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and new coalitions such as Save Our Human Rights and Right to Boycott are also demonstrating the power of broad movements. This is important to amplify different, but complimentary voices on the issue and mobilise public support.

We need to establish our own positive narratives focused on shared values, such as kindness, family or freedom, which resonate deeply with the public and bring people together rather than sow divisions.

To truly connect with people across the political spectrum, this means going beyond strategic communications. The Narrative Hub or this twitter thread is a fantastic source of resources.

And last but not least, we need to stand in solidarity with communities, groups and organisations that bear the brunt of legislation and political attacks. This is about both educating ourselves about how they are being impacted and speaking out when they are being attacked.

Above all else, we need to remain bold, courageous and undeterred.