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Defending our democratic space: a call to action

Charity Reform Group logo

Is our democracy at a tipping point?

Research by SMK and Civil Exchange identified numerous threats, over more than a decade, to the vital elements of our democracy – those that enable people to have a voice, amplify that voice to decision-makers, and help hold politicians to account.

Fundamental rights to peaceful protest have been curtailed. Ministers increasingly use powers that allow them to make laws with very limited scrutiny. Many charities are afraid to speak up because of restrictive policies and hostile rhetoric. Experts are being banned from government platforms for criticising them. And it’s harder to get access to the courts to hold government to account. And these are just a few examples.

We are at a tipping point. If politicians don’t reverse that trend, they will undermine their legitimacy, their ability to deliver for the British people, and ultimately damage democracy itself. We’re calling on them to commit to positive change in the run up to the next election.

We must recognise the crisis before it is too late. We’re urging civil society to speak out about the importance of our democratic space, take the lead in building new alliances across society, and work with others to reimagine that space – one where people’s voices count and our democratic institutions are truly accountable. These are goals that our research tells us cross political divides. Read the press release here.

What is ‘democratic space’? It’s the space where people and organisations help shape the policies, services, laws, and culture that affect everyone’s lives.

About the report

In 2022, we spoke to charities, organisations, grassroots campaigners, and people beyond civil society. We heard concerns about specific threats to democratic space. Yet, the bigger picture emerged as the greatest concern – we heard the overall problem is serious and growing, but is largely going unnoticed.

This report documents the problem, asks why it is happening, and shares strategies we can use to counter the threats.

If you are interested in this work, you can register your interest. We’ll get in touch when there’s more to know.

SMK Review document

In brief

  • Too many people feel they’re not listened to by decision-makers, that their everyday concerns are ignored, and that they lack control.
  • Successive governments have eroded vital elements of Britain’s democracy that enable people to have a voice, amplify that voice to decision-makers, and help hold politicians to account.
  • This results in poorer services, policies, and laws and reduces transparency, accountability, and trust in government.
  • We’ve reached the point where some politicians and Ministers are portraying charities, campaigners, judges, lawyers, and parts of the media as a block to democracy, rather than key components of it.
  • The people we spoke to say the overall problem is serious, growing, and largely going unnoticed – one interviewee likened it to a boiled frog who fails to notice the water heating until it is too late.
  • Civicus, which monitors trends worldwide, has put the UK on the same alert as Poland, Hungary, and South Africa.
  • Civil society is both in the firing line and uniquely placed to see the bigger picture, putting it in a good position to draw together a broad coalition that reaches beyond civil society. It cannot simply hunker down and hope threats will go away. Longer-term drivers, such as the disproportionate influence of big business and media moguls, or the polarising effect of social media, will remain whoever is in power.
  • We are calling on politicians of all parties to respond to the public appetite for a new way of working by committing to champion and repair our democratic space.
“If you join up the dots between the various things that are happening, you have what amounts to a very serious threat to democracy itself.”

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