Sue Tibballs: The government might learn from EU debate

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

It has been quite a time in the world of campaigning. The government has been in campaigning mode in recent months, with huge amounts of public money being directed at keeping the UK in the EU.

The government's desire to win seemed to influence its line on whether charities could and should campaign. The clause that was to be inserted into government grant agreements to prohibit funds being used to influence government was "paused", and the Charity Commission decided to take a softer line on charities campaigning around the EU referendum. It is tempting to think it changed its position in response to effective lobbying from the sector. But it might have had more to do with the government putting pressure on the Charity Commission because it wanted charities to help it.

We have also seen a victory for the Hillsborough campaign. It's an extraordinary story, brilliantly told in the documentary aired just after the victory. This is an epic tale of The People v The Establishment and their long journey over 27 years to finally get to the truth, secure justice and confer some dignity on those who lost their lives and their families. The Hillsborough campaigners remind us of the extraordinary power of ordinary people.

Hillsborough also shows us why people must campaign: because power can corrupt and it needs to be held to account. The EU referendum reminds us why organisations and governments must campaign: because there are some big decisions to be made about how the UK sees itself in the world and how we are going to work with our neighbours.

This is why it is a genuine problem that the term "campaigning" is seen as toxic, an activity that is extreme and dangerous. For us at SMK, campaigning is a catch-all term for any and all activity, founded on a set of beliefs and values, that seeks to make a change in pursuit of them.

Campaigning does not of itself have any political persuasion or value base. But it is the means by which we express and pursue our values and political beliefs, whether it is a government using its resources to campaign for EU membership, a group of ordinary people seeking justice for those they love, a community trying to save a library, charities pushing for more state support for the vulnerable or even landowners campaigning to stop people walking on their land.

I hope the government's realisation that sometimes it does want charities to campaign will put an end to its wrong-headed attempts to stifle charity campaigning. It should be doing precisely the opposite - encouraging charities to campaign. The whole concept of the big society was surely about this. You cannot ask citizens and communities to take more responsibility in society without also allowing them to express a view about what kind of society we should have.

One positive step would be to appoint some campaigners to the Charity Commission, given that it is recruiting and some of the incumbents seem to have a dim view of campaigning. It would be really good to see the commission lift campaigning out of the political trough and restored to it's rightful place as an essential element of any decent and democratic society.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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