Every year, we ask campaigners what’s going on in their world in our annual survey, now in its seventh year. Despite the SMK Annual Campaigner Survey for 2022 revealing a marked decline in political attitudes to campaigning, part of closing civic space in the UK, we found that campaigners are showing their adaptability and ingenuity by shifting tactics and strategy.
This year, we released our survey results on the same day that the CIVICUS Monitor downgraded the UK’s civic space rating from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’. Our results show how campaigners are responding.
- Over 70% of campaigners say that politicians have become more hostile to campaigning in the past year
- Nearly 60% say that engaging with ministers is now less effective
- 40% say the same about responding to Government consultations.
Campaigners are increasingly pursuing alternative tactics, with more focus on the public, politicians beyond Whitehall, business, and unions.
UK civic space downgraded to ‘obstructed’
Civic space can be thought of as the spaces in which democracy happens – this includes spaces for debate, to contribute to the society we live in, to influence the laws that govern us, and the ability to organise and associate with others.
Where our means of shaping our own society is restricted – through laws, practice, or political pressure – our civic space becomes obstructed. In the UK, people’s ability to engage in our democracy is now actively being obstructed.
Is the space to campaign being squeezed?
SMK has been concerned about civic space in the UK for years. What we heard from campaigners in our survey also supports the CIVICUS analysis. Just take a look:
- 94% say there are threats to the freedom to organise, contribute to public debate, influence political decisions, or protest
- 94% think negative rhetoric towards campaigning from politicians or the media is threatening civic space; and 92% think recent and emerging legislation is threatening it.
- 43% say they sometimes censor themselves for fear of political backlash
- 72% have noticed a more negative attitude to civil society campaigning among politicians and 52% have noticed this among the media.
What are campaigners saying?
“The government’s crackdown on campaigning is deeply alarming! …[It’s] part of a wider drive to silence civil society and restore charities to this backwards idea of just being a service provider for a withdrawing state, without any actual campaigning response being allowed.”
“I think the political reception for campaigning has become increasingly hostile – it is hard to make progress with the kinds of campaigning we’re used to…It feels like charities and campaigners have been cemented in opposition spaces, rather than as cooperative voices, which can be challenging.”
“As opportunities to actually influence have been reduced, we place a great emphasis on our advocacy being about accountability and blunting the sharp edges, rather than positive policy change”.
How are campaigners responding?
We found that, with doors reportedly closing in Westminster, campaigners are adapting by pursuing new ways to create social change.
- 27% are now focusing less on Government, with 42% increasing their focus on backbench MPs. This was the only group, apart from political donors, for which more people answered “LESS focus on” than “MORE focus on”
- 52% have increased their focus on the public, and 45% are focusing more on newspapers and the media as means of campaigning.
- More people are looking outside Westminster, with 34% concentrating more on devolved administrations and 39% focusing more on local / regional governments.
Here’s what campaigners said about switching tactics.
“Tactics have definitely changed. Government no longer responds to petitions and 38 Degrees and Change have cornered the market. We have become more grassroots and media focused to bring lived experience into counter narratives.”
“We’ve started looking at community organising a lot more – building up local capacity building projects, toolkits for campaigners etc”.
“We are actively seeking to collaborate with NGOs who are not traditionally in our space to build a larger force to speak to power”.
What we say.
Sue Tibballs, SMK CEO, says:
“That UK civic space is now considered ‘obstructed’ will come as little surprise to campaigners. They have been warning about the ‘chilling effect’ of harmful legislation and hostile rhetoric for years.
“Despite this, we’re seeing greater determination to speak up for their causes – and that is happening at every level. I speak to trustees and chief executives who are ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’ by taking a more sophisticated approach to risk, one that also considers the risk of staying silent, and building organisational confidence that seeking change is a vital part of their mission.
“The results of this year’s survey are testament to the adaptability of campaigners who, it seems, have decided to downgrade central government for now in favour of those capable of more ‘grown up’ engagement – the public, other politicians, business, unions.
“It should never have reached the point where anyone should worry about political backlash for legitimate engagement, but the ‘when one door closes another opens’ attitude we’re seeing should be commended. It’s evidence that civil society is less and less inclined to ‘stick to the knitting’.”
SMK Campaigner Survey results
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