When peers debated the effect of the lobbying act on campaigning, their experience was something akin to our own in civil society – that of a government with its fingers in its ears. Despite expert contributions, no amount of evidence or logic was able to make a dent in the government’s position that everything will be fine once the law has been explained better.
Yet many of the exchanges offered useful insights into the different, sometimes diametrically opposed, views of civil society held by politicians. The result was a debate that veered between rallying cries for our ability to enrich political debate and lectures against charities sullying themselves with lobbying on behalf of the people they work with.
At one end of the spectrum, Conservative peer Lord Suri said: "Charities ought to focus on their charitable activities, rather than attempting to become similar to think tanks in producing policy reports, lobbying and running campaigns during elections and referenda."
At the other, the Labour peer Lord Judd stated that charities now understood that "it is not good enough just to minister to those in need… I do not put it too strongly when I say that, by the time I had finished my professional work in the charitable sector, I had become totally convinced that responsible campaigning—I emphasise ‘responsible’—was one of the most effective ways of serving those we sought to serve."
Later, the Labour peer Lord Kennedy of Southwark said "the act has made it considerably harder for charities to campaign on the very core issues which are their reason for existing in the first place".
There is the problem in a nutshell. Campaigning is essential, but the lobbying act has made it harder. Until the government accepts it has a responsibility to improve matters, debate on the technical detail just feels like tilting at windmills.
The agenda is now being set by those comfortable with paradox. The government says in its Civil Society Strategy that an "influential civil society is a hallmark of a thriving democracy" but then seems to say that using public funds to contribute to political debate is absolutely wrong. The lobbying act depends on a "reasonable" person’s interpretation of whether an activity is intended to influence voters, yet many politicians (purposefully or otherwise) conflate "political" with "party political". Parts of the media celebrate charitable giving while simultaneously tearing down charities that use that money to fund work that is "too political".
In this atmosphere, campaigners are being asked to predict whether, despite their intentions, their work might be interpreted as electioneering by a fictional reasonable person. Is it any wonder that so many organisations are hanging back from political debate for fear of how their supporters, politicians and regulators might react?
There are those in civil society working very hard to change both the lobbying act and the guidance. They are prepared to dive down that rabbit hole, and for that we salute them. As they do, the rest of us have a responsibility to engage politicians, on all sides and in both houses, to build a more positive, common understanding of the purpose and value of civil society. If we are successful, it will be clear why civil society has not only a right, but also a duty to campaign, and why it must get its hands dirty with political (but not party political) debate in the interests of the people it serves.
Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation