Linda Butcher: 'We have to set an agenda for our new role in civil society'

Membership of political parties is at an all-time low, but that doesn't mean people aren't engaging with democracy, writes our columnist

Linda Butcher
Linda Butcher

This time last year, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, now an act, had not yet reached parliament. The government had made noises about clamping down on lobbying, which it saw as the next big scandal, but there was little indication that this would lead to such tight regulation of non-party campaigning.

In six short months, the lobbying act was introduced into parliament, debated in both houses – if debated is the right word – and given royal assent. This act is a textbook reminder of the speed at which things can change when there is political will and determination.

In response to the lobbying bill, the sector hit the ground running – we had no other choice. We mobilised, launched a targeted campaign and forced important amendments.

So as we look six – or even a luxuriously long 12 – months ahead, what might happen and what should we do?

First, if this past year has taught us anything, it should be to expect the unexpected. The role of charities in civil society is changing and we must remain alert to any and all threats to our independence and voice.

But, in line with findings from the likes of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in England, which has prioritised campaigning in its five-year strategy, we should aim to set an agenda, not just react to it.

The run-up to the 2015 general election and its aftermath provides the charity sector with a real opportunity to build on the joint working of the past year to do just that.

Everyone will have different ideas about what this agenda might look like, so please do share your thoughts. For now, here are a few of my own.

It's important the voices of the most marginalised are heard. Who Benefits? is a practical example of a collaborative campaign using crowd-sourced material to challenge some of the language used to discuss benefit recipients. It gives benefit recipients, past and present, a platform to tell their stories.

Despite the coming general election, political party membership is at an all-time low, with less than 1 per cent of adults belonging to a party. But that doesn't mean people aren't engaging with democracy; they're just doing politics differently.

People are engaging with issues they care about through campaigning, be it with charities, as campaign groups or at a grass-roots level. Sometimes they do it as lone but passionate individuals. As a sector, we should help this process of participatory democracy and engagement, such as the campaigns in Scotland that work to engage people in the overall independence debate, rather than pitching a particular "no" or "yes".

Those directly affected by something are almost always best placed to speak out about it. The activist-led #spartacus campaign, which influenced the House of Lords decision to inflict a series of defeats on the government's welfare reform bill, is a prime example.

This column will provide a space to discuss some of the key issues for charity and grass-roots campaigners in the year ahead, while sharing lessons from those already creating change across the country. So do let me know what is on your mind: info@smk.org.uk.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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