Charity campaigners facing an increasingly hostile political environment, research suggests

Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, says politicians should work with charities and not make them 'fodder in phony culture wars'

Political hostility towards charities appears to be increasing, with 90 per cent of campaigners saying their ability to speak out or protest is under threat, according to a new survey.

The latest annual report by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, involving a poll of UK campaigners and activists from charities and voluntary groups, found that 63 per cent said politicians became more negative toward campaigning in 2020 – up 18 percentage points on the previous year.

The report calls for politicians to work with the sector and stop making charities “fodder in phony culture wars”.

Examples cited include the backlash the National Trust faced from some Conservative MPs and elements of the media after it published a report into its properties' links with slavery.

This was despite the Charity Commission receiving just three complaints from the public about the report.

The same group of Tory MPs reported Barnardo’s to the regulator after it published a blog discussing racial inequality and white privilege.

The ensuing storm saw more than 200 charity leaders come out in support of the charity’s work supporting vulnerable children.

Also cited in the report was Home Secretary Priti Patel’s targeting of “do-gooders” and “lefty” lawyers in a speech at Tory party conference in October.

In the same week as Patel’s address, the chair of the Charity Commission was criticised for making similar remarks in a “patronising” keynote address at the Charity Law Association conference.

The findings suggest that politicians and the media are out of touch with public attitudes to campaigning.

The proportion of campaigners who said that the public was positive toward charity campaigning rose by six percentage points year on year to 54 per cent.

The report cites widespread support for the footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign on food poverty as an example of this.

The England striker’s campaign forced the government to do a U-turn on its refusal to provide meals for children over the school holidays and saw a record number of donations flood in to the food poverty charity FareShare.

At the same time the media has become less tolerant, campaigners believe, with 49 per cent of survey respondents saying the media had taken a more negative attitude toward campaigning in 2020, up from 41 per cent in the previous year.

Only 19 per cent of respondents believed the media had become more positive in 2020.

The report comes after years of tightening government restrictions on campaigning through measures such as the lobbying act and the use of “gagging clauses” attached to grants.

The most cited threats were conditions on funding that prevented lobbying and campaigning, and the negative views of politicians toward campaigning (both at 77 per cent).

Negative media coverage of civil society was a close third among respondents (72 per cent).

The report builds on last year's findings that found almost half of charity campaigners believed the climate for campaigning had got worse.

On a more positive note, this year’s survey suggests that the pandemic itself might have inspired a better public response by exposing systemic problems, growing need and making people “more aware that they need to fight for change to happen”.

More than half of the respondents to the survey, which was completed by almost 200 campaigners and activists, said campaigning was a greater priority for their organisation than a year ago, while 48 per cent said their organisation had increased its campaigning activity over the past three years.

Despite the increase, almost 98 per cent of respondents said there would be a need for more campaigning by civil society organisations over the next year.

Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, said: “Civil society will stay on-mission because that’s what we’re for – not for profit, not for party politics, but for people and the planet.

“Ministers can try to slam shut the doors of Whitehall, but the pandemic has shown us all what happens when extra pressure is applied to inequality and injustice that has festered for decades.

“It’s time for politicians to work with us, even where we don’t always agree, not make us fodder in phony culture wars.”

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