Research suggests campaigners are recovering confidence

A survey of campaigners by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation finds that almost half feel the public has become more positive towards civil society campaigning in the past year

(Photograph: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photograph: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Voluntary sector campaigners are recovering their confidence after years of feeling increasingly repressed, new research indicates.

A survey of campaigners carried out by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation found they thought the public had become more supportive of their work over the past year, despite increasingly negative attitudes from politicians and the media.

The research found that almost half of respondents said they thought the public’s attitude towards civil society campaigning had become more positive over the past 12 months, with 19 per cent thinking it had become more negative. The rest said no change or they did not know.

The survey, which has been conducted every year since 2016, also found that 45 per cent of respondents felt politicians had become more negative towards campaigning and 41 per cent thought the media had become more negative towards it.

Researchers, who received responses from 189 civil society campaigners, found a fall in the proportion of those who thought the climate for campaigning had become worse in the past year, from 49 per cent in 2018 to 36 per cent this year.

Almost a third of respondents for the latest survey said the campaigning environment had improved over the past year.

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation said the findings showed that campaigners were recovering their confidence in the wake of negative factors including fear of the lobbying act and the use of anti-advocacy clauses in public sector grant contracts.

Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, said: “It is brilliant to see civil society rallying and recovering its confidence to campaign after a long period of feeling conflicted and constrained.

“Conditions put on public funding have made it difficult for charities to speak up, and the sector has come under sustained pressure from politicians and regulators to step away from political debate.”

Respondents to the survey said they felt public attitudes towards campaigning had improved because they were seeing more of it in the public arena through high-profile groups such as Extinction Rebellion and lobbying over Brexit.

The top three threats to campaigning cited by survey respondents were conditions on funding that prevent lobbying, chosen by 57 per cent of respondents, civil society not being as confident about its right to campaign as it should be, mentioned by 53 per cent, and a general lack of awareness about what civil society campaigning has achieved, cited by 52 per cent of respondents.

The proportion of those concerned about the effect of the lobbying act on campaigning fell to 48 per cent, down from 64 per cent last year.

Respondents said guidance from the Electoral Commission had helped to make it clear that charity campaigning was legitimate.

The survey also found that 95 per cent of respondents said they wanted to collaborate more on campaigns with other civil society organisations.

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