In 2018 I conducted some research as part of the Civil Society Futures Inquiry, interviewing groups with an explicit mission to make change happen. One theme which came up in those interviews, and which has been echoed in personal conversations with people I know through organising, were the limitiations lots of groups were experiencing in their work around ‘political’ activity. These restrictions were coming from lots of angles: from funders and the Charity Commission, and related to legislation like Prevent or the Lobbying Act.
Examples included groups being threatened with having their funding removed if they opposed the local council, or being unable to access public spaces for events if the topics touched on controversial issues, which limited their ability to create meaningful change and reach out to a wider audience. These experiences echoed high-profile examples such as government ministers criticising the Trussell Trust for saying that food bank use was related to benefit sanctions, and the Charity Commission investigating the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust for funding Cage.
The impact on these smaller organisations is less well understood, because the organisations also described being unable to speak publicly about the restrictions they faced – where a big player like Oxfam might be able to ride out being criticised by the Charity Commission for a ‘political’ advert, for small groups this is often too big a risk. So I decided to do some follow up research specifically focussing on this question of how the ‘political’ is being defined in different contexts, and how this limits the effectiveness of small organisations.
I hope to document some of what is happening by interviewing a range of different groups, alongside desk-based research to understand how the definitions of what is political emerged historically. The aim is to find a way to tell the general public something about what’s going on, while keeping the organisations themselves anonymous.