Rumours have been swirling that charities have been silenced by the Lobbying Act during this election campaign, prevented from speaking out in support of their beneficiaries or cause. The Guardian, for example, reports that ‘sector leaders feel muzzled’ by the Act. But while it has undoubtedly helped to create a chilling climate for campaigning, its impact mustn’t be exaggerated: charities should – indeed must – carry on campaigning.
Don’t just take my word for it, here is Ben Wilkinson from the Electoral Commission writing in a guest blog for NCVO:
‘Charities and other non-party campaigners are vital to a healthy democracy and we encourage their active participation during election periods. The rules do not prevent them from campaigning and engaging in public debate‘. (My emphasis)
Wilkinson goes on to explain that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sets the rules on campaign spending by non-political parties during an election campaign. These rules are not targeted specifically at charities, but at any ‘non-political party’ and are designed to ensure transparency and prevent any group from unduly influencing voters’ decisions. You only have to think of the impact of Super PACs (Political Action Committees) that can spend unlimited funds for or against candidates in the US to see that some restrictions might be a good idea.
Yes, charities need to understand (and abide by) the rules. And yes, the rules should be changed, as Lord Hodgson’s review of the Lobbying Act has recommended, they are far too vague and sweeping in scope. But as long as they are campaigning to further their charitable purpose and not for or against a political party, charities can speak out. Indeed, as Vicky Browning, Chief Executive of ACEVO has argued:
‘The only way that this election is going to return a government that understands the needs and opinions of a diverse range of communities is through hearing the voice of charities.’
And many charities have not been deterred by these rules, organising bold and creative campaigns in the run-up to the election, as NCVO has shown.
A healthy democracy requires that different voices are heard, including (or especially) those who are too often marginalised in mainstream debates. This is more important than ever when sections of the media are so quick to denounce those they disagree with as ‘enemies of the people’, whether they be a Supreme Court Judge or Gary Lineker.
Charities have a vital role to play in holding all parties to account and giving voice to the widest possible range of interests and causes. We must not let ourselves be frozen out.