A NEW report, Defending our Democratic Space, documents cumulative threats over more than a decade to vital elements of our democracy that enable people to have a voice, amplify that voice to decision-makers, and help hold politicians to account.

The report calls on politicians to reverse that trend, warning failure to do so will undermine their legitimacy and ability to deliver for the British people, and ultimately damage democracy itself.

It also calls on the not-for-profit sector to take a leadership role to raise awareness of the importance of our democratic space, build new alliances within and beyond civil society, and work with others to create a shared vision for it. Research undertaken for this report suggests it is possible to find common ground across political divides on big issues like integrity, accountability, and transparency.

The report, produced by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation in partnership with Civil Exchange, is based on discussions with charities and grassroots campaigners, thinktanks, Parliamentarians and others, including people across the political spectrum. The message is clear: the overall problem is serious, growing, and largely going unnoticed. One interviewee likened it to a boiled frog who fails to realise the water is slowly getting warmer until it is too late. Former prime minister, Sir John Major, publicly warned last year about many of the threats contained in this report, and said it was critical for politicians to uphold and protect ‘the values we have as individuals, and the trust we inspire as a nation.’

Polls already show that people do not think politicians listen or deliver for them, and are concerned about their loss of integrity and transparency. Many also actively support charities and other civil society organisations and cannot understand why they are under political attack. They know they are a vital conduit for their views on issues that matter to them, helping to create good policies, services and laws through advice and campaigning, working with others to curate and create our common culture, and sometimes challenging the government in the courts when laws are broken. They appreciate the critical role of the media and judiciary in ensuring all voices are heard and government is held to account, and wonder when they too are attacked.

Sue Tibballs, CEO of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, said: “In the run up to the next election, all political parties need to step up and commit to policies that will protect those precious aspects of UK democracy that enable people, and those who represent them, to have a voice and a say.

“Too many people already feel they’re not listened to by their elected representatives, that their everyday concerns are ignored, and that they lack control. Attacks on the ability of charities to campaign and raise issues with the government or restrictions on the right to peaceful protest can only make this worse.”

Caroline Slocock, Director of Civil Exchange which co-authored this report, said: “Successive UK administrations have shown a loss of integrity and respect for the law and democratic institutions, eroding transparency, accountability and trust. Some politicians and commentators are even portraying judges, lawyers, charities, campaigners and parts of the media as a block to democracy, rather than vital elements of it. We’re calling on charities to create a broad coalition of interests across the political spectrum and sectors to defend and re-imagine a democratic space where people’s voices count and our democratic institutions are truly accountable.”

Threats to our democratic space mentioned in the report include:

  • New laws that mean ordinary people wanting to protest peacefully about a new road or library closure may now be put off by the thought of being arrested; or that a teenager feeling they have no choice but to protest about inaction on global warming may face a criminal record that will damage their future career.
  • Ministers making widespread use of powers to make laws that cannot be amended by Parliament and receive limited scrutiny, and which can even overturn Parliament’s express wishes – for example, the Government used powers in the Public Order Act to redefine “serious disruption” as “more than minor”, effectively overruling a successful House of Lords amendment to the Act itself that ruled this out.
  • Many charities being afraid to speak up about problems they see, partly because of the chilling effect of the Lobbying Act 2014, partly because of restrictions when they receive government money, and partly due to the hostile, so-called ‘culture war’ rhetoric they increasingly encounter.
  • Government attempts in 2020 to curtail the independence of museums and galleries to curate their own exhibitions, on the grounds that they are “motivated by activism or politics”.
  • Reduction in access to legal aid for the public, an increase in costs and financial risks for charities seeking judicial review of certain government decisions, and the restriction of access to judicial review as an appeal route for some types of case.

The report points to longer-term drivers behind these trends, such as the disproportionate influence of big business and media moguls or the polarising effect of social media, which are likely to remain whichever administration is in power.

* Read Defending our democratic space: a call to action here.

* Source: The Sheila McKechnie Foundation