Child protection NGOs from seven central and eastern European countries participated in a recent Sheila McKechnie Foundation campaign training programme in Bulgaria. Many of them work in emerging democracies, and they shared the context and challenges of campaigning in their countries.
These NGOs, like many in the UK, know that campaigning by individuals, communities and charities can be vital to making mainstream or alternative service provisions work better for those they are meant to support.
When updating the group on the UK context, I reported that campaigning, campaigners and some fundamental tools of our democracy were under attack, and the list of attacks appeared to be getting longer: the lobbying act; bad-mouthing and poorly evidenced complaints about campaigning by some politicians who seem to want to divide the charity sector into good and bad; reduced access to judicial review; and issues about paying for the policing of protests. And whatever you think about charities receiving money from government, we can now add to the list anti-campaigning clauses in contracts to prevent the influencing of legislation development.
In addition to raising these issues and taking action ourselves, it was important to SMK that our recent 10th anniversary campaigner awards took place in the House of Lords during the first election year with the lobbying act in place. We strongly believe that campaigners have a central role to play in a democracy, and we wanted to celebrate the work that they do in the heart of UK political decision-making.
The award winners and their campaigns demonstrated some of the common ground we have with those in other parts of Europe or the wider world. SMK's awards are partnered with those of the Resource Centre for Public Participation (CeRe) in Bucharest, Romania. Among other issues, both of our awards recognise the important work of transport campaigners, who don't always get the big headlines because their campaigns are not necessarily "sexy" or controversial. In the UK, these included Colin Speakman of the DalesBus campaign and Doug Paulley, who campaigns for wheelchair priority on buses. Both of these have helped to improve transport provision or access to it, strengthening the social and economic inclusion of individuals and communities.
Bucharest or London, it shouldn't matter whether you or I – or our politicians – agree on every issue that others are campaigning on. We should applaud those campaigners who take a stand for doing something important for democracy and for us all.
Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation