I hadn’t given much thought to the Alternative Vote referendum until a member of Democracy Matters got a threatening letter from William Norton of the No to AV campaign. The letter alleged that Democracy Matters supported the Yes campaign and that as an unincorporated association this implied endorsement by all its members and that charities are not permitted to take sides in the referendum and it should therefore provide the No to AV campaign with a “denial of support for the Yes Campaign, for general circulation” and also ask Democracy Matters to disaffiliate from the Yes Campaign. Similar letters had been sent to 42 charities, along with a four page letter to the Charities Commission saying that if this matter is not resolved he will “consider making formal complaints about the charitable status of these organisations.”
My first thought was that the No Campaign must be running scared if it has to frighten organisations from supporting the campaign. Then perhaps this was a cunning wheeze by a young Mr Norton, fresh from law school, to get a clutch of letters “denying support for the Yes Campaign” to promote the No Campaign. Or perhaps he simply was a retired solicitor with time on his hands and a genuine desire to ensure “that the referendum is fought on a fair and legitimate basis with a level playing field for both sides” as stated in his letter.
Mr Norton must have spent a lot of time on these letters, because he researched the aims of each charity as well as Democracy Matters. But at no point did he ask me what our position was. He had jumped to conclusions without double checking his facts. I would have told him that we did not take sides on the referendum question.
The more serious problem is that Mr Norton is wasting the time and money of many charities, which have been forced to discuss the issue, consult lawyers or the Charity Commission, and correspond with me and others to clarify the matter.
Even more serious is the way in which this kind of legalistic threat attempts to close down active involvement in campaigns about the nature of our democracy. The Charity Commission’s guidance on political activities by charities is reasonably clear and deserves careful reading. In plain English (as opposed to legalise, in which meaning is mangled), this allows a charity to take a position for or against a referendum question where 1), after careful consideration, it believes a yes or no vote furthers their objectives as a charity (but not where the aims of the charity are narrower than the potential impact of the referendum), and 2), and there is not a significant party political dimension to the referendum. Although the Liberal Democrat position on AV could make this seem a party-political issue, the major parties are divided and the democratic process should not be the property of parties but of citizens. Parliament sets the rules for all organisations including charities, so they should be concerned about how Parliament is constituted. Citizens should also be able to exercise their voice through their organisations, many of which are charities. More citizens are involved in charities than in political parties and for many charities reflect their concerns better than any political party. Charities should always give careful thought before taking a position on any issue, because it may compromise their reputation, their ability to deal even-handedly with politicians or breach their charitable objectives. But the risk of losing support as a result of taking a stand is a more important and democratic sanction on charities’ actions than a narrow interpretation of the law and threats of court action. Democracy Matters may have to take up this point of principle with the Charity Commission.
Most serious of all, however, is Mr Norton’s allegation that the views of unincorporated associations are binding on all its members. This would make it almost impossible to form informal alliances of any kind. But in plain English, the Charity Commission’s guidance on coalitions states that “It is open to charities to form coalitions, alliances and consortia for the purpose of lobbying MPs and government for changes to the law. It is not realistic to expect that everything that a campaigning alliance does, particularly if it has a large membership, will fit with every one of its members’ charitable purposes and there are, therefore, some important considerations.”
Mr Nortion is neither a naive young lawyer nor a pedant with a passion for legalese, but a seasoned political activist who led the highly successful NO campaign against the referendum for an elected regional assembly in the North East in 2004. His five part series on How to Win a Referendum offers reflections on practical politics which are relevant to any side in the campaign and makes useful distinctions between party political campaigning and the kind of broad strategy needed to win a referendum.
In this instance, however, Mr Norton’s 42 letters has at least raised awareness of the referendum among these charities and more widely through an artcile in Third Sector magazine, althiough his heavy-handed tactics may be counter-productive and encourage sympathy for the Yes to AV campaign.
That is, if there is a referendum at all this May. The Government’s decision to lump the AV vote with the cut in parliamentary seats has also confused the issue, which perhaps it was designed to do.
Personally I am not wholly convinced by AV. It is not proportional and it can exaggerate representation of one party when there are strong swings. But then AV forces candidates to seek majority support and not just a plurality. So there are merits on both sides and I intend to look at the arguments in more detail later.
This blog contains personal reflections and does not represent the views of Unlock Democracy or any of its members.