Brian Lamb: The political process should aim to accommodate the views of citizens

People want to influence politics through charities, writes our columnist

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted by NatCen Social Research, shows that there are signs that the public is engaging more with politics, even though it remains disillusioned with politicians. The survey also shows that more people want to be able to influence politics through direct democracy, but are sceptical about measures meant to improve transparency. So let's look at the lobbying bill through this lens.

The aim of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill was to make lobbying more transparent and end the abuses of recent years. Yet it seems likely to fail.

It is good that the government has agreed to make lobbying more transparent, but the restrictions in the bill could have banned charity campaigning on many issues between now and the election.

Greater engagement

Political engagement, if not party political affiliation, is still very much with us - indeed, it is stronger than it was in 1986. According to the survey, this is not so much because young people are engaging in click activism, but rather that people over the age of 30 are getting more involved. The evidence for this can be seen in stronger engagement with charity campaigning and other forms of political action.

The recent winners of the Sheila McKechnie Campaigner Awards - which recognise the contribution campaigners make towards achieving social, environmental and economic justice - come from every walk of life. They include a schoolgirl who helped to campaign successfully for climate change to remain on the school curriculum, and victims of legal miscarriages fighting for redress. These are not the professional agitators sometimes imagined by ministers, but ordinary people moved to take extraordinary action.

Only politicians and decision-makers unsure of their case are afraid of public scrutiny. We should be wary of restricting protest about political decisions either directly or by curtailing people's access to redress through such tools as judicial review. Democracy is about testing ideas in the cauldron of debate, and people no longer want to have that debate only through political parties and voting. They also want the more direct consultation and influence that charity campaigning brings.

The right to campaign, which is embodied in charity law, is important and protects all points of view. The rules on campaigning protected the Countryside Alliance as much as they did the campaign to ban fox-hunting, pro and anti-abortion campaigners, those campaigning for better rights for our troops and those who want to see an end to war. The ecology of campaigning in the sector is much more varied than critics imagine.

Active citizenship

Being an active citizen means you cannot draw lines between helping in your community and thinking about how to prevent the problems it faces in the first place. The attitudes survey shows that what the public wants is more direct involvement in decision-making. Perhaps we should move away from the notion of a campaigner as someone different from a citizen. We are all citizens with views, and the political process needs to ensure there is space for those views. This could help to restore people's faith in the political process.

Brian Lamb is a consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

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