Political drivers

A decline in the political importance of Brexit

2019 saw Brexit becoming a key dividing line in politics, but it may now be starting to fade into the background. There is now a clear election result, an increasing desire of some to get Brexit done reflected in election polling,[1] and a government that is keen to show that it is moving beyond Brexit.

Many experts have pointed out that Brexit will be far from over once the UK formally leaves the EU. However, it may be that the way media covers trade talks, and how much attention the public pay to those talks, sees Brexit decline in importance as an issue for many voters. The government is expected to drop the word ‘Brexit’ from formal communications, and the Department for Exiting the European Union will be closed once the UK has formally left the EU at the end of January as they seek to remove the word Brexit from the screens and newspapers of those who just want it to be over.

Given this, the importance of Brexit in UK-wide electoral politics now seems likely to decline, though by how much remains in question. But with most major Brexit-related policy decisions likely to be taken before the next general election, currently scheduled for 2024, parties across the spectrum will be looking to adopt a policy agenda that acknowledges this.

A government majority means more action but less scrutiny

One other consequence of the government having a majority is that scrutiny of the Brexit process is likely to be weakened. One of the first steps taken by the government was to remove clauses from the updated withdrawal agreement bill, inserted in the previous parliament in an attempt to secure the bill’s passage, that would require detailed parliamentary scrutiny of future negotiations. Other previously-agreed concessions that have now been ditched include explicit commitments not to weaken existing employment rights and environmental standards.

This will be concerning for charities who are looking to engage in the detail of post-Brexit policy and influence future trade negotiations, particularly environmental organisations. Without the overarching protections provided by the EU, individual international agreements could require significant regulatory changes that civil society would want to be able to scrutinise.

In practice, scrutiny of the Brexit process is likely to present fewer difficulties for the government in any case because of their ability to call on their majority if required, but it will again make it easier for the government to make Brexit a less politically contentious issue.

Lower political importance of Brexit doesn’t mean it will go away

While no-deal preparations have been officially stood down, if the transition period ends at the end of 2020, a significant number of changes to how UK law operates will still have to be made, but also communicated to business and civil society.

While it looks possible for some sort of deal to be agreed by December, the closer we get to that deadline without clarity, the more difficult it will be to implement last minute changes, so we can anticipate January 2021 providing some bumps in the road for anyone who has regular dealings with EU countries, and possibly more widely.

As we move towards more technical trade talks, the nature of political debate and media coverage means that less engaged members of the public are likely to hear less about Brexit, and may not associate the resulting decisions with Brexit. Charities, however, will need to be aware of these changes, which could have significant practical consequences.

More political focus on the ‘red wall’

Ahead of the 2019 general election, polling expert James Kanagasooriam identified what he termed a ‘red wall’ of seats stretching from north Wales across the north of England where the Conservative vote was significantly lower than its demographics suggest it should be. Others have used this term to mean historically Labour seats that have been made winnable for the Conservatives by support for Brexit.[2] In practice, the seats are a fairly diverse mix of traditional marginal constituencies, and safer seats where a trend away from Labour has been exacerbated by the Brexit vote. However you define them, the Conservative election success in 2019 was made possible by winning seats in this category.

This shift however is not simply a case of Brexit providing a reason for Labour voters to switch to the Conservatives. Over the last 15 years, Labour has increased its support among younger, more diverse populations in urban areas while losing support in less densely populated towns and rural areas.

These seats now appear to be more aligned with Conservative policies in some areas, such as security, policing and immigration, but it is likely that the party's traditional approach to the economy, public services, and the size of the state is less in tune with these new Conservative voters.

A new centre ground?

While there has been much talk of a new centrist, anti-Brexit party in recent years, most polling suggests that any space on the political spectrum that may exist is geared more towards voters with socially conservative views, and more interventionist economic views. It is here that there may be a route to a majority for the Conservatives without Brexit dominating the political weather.

Some have argued that before the election the Conservatives had already moved to the left of their party under David Cameron on economic policy, and may do so further. It is likely, however, that there would be internal opposition to a policy agenda that moved too far in this direction, and so there could be more of a focus on social and cultural issues.

These discussions are likely to inform political debate in the next few years, and so are worth paying attention to. For local charities, community engagement and the extent to which local services are funded will be key, but also charities working on issues that are unpopular with some sections of the public, such as human rights organisations, could find their causes in the firing line. It is also worth saying that despite the importance of these attitudes in determining the way people have voted, at a local level the situation is considerably more nuanced.[3]

Given the importance of these areas politically, that means all parties will be looking for insights into these communities. Charities could provide an influential voice – particularly on issues such as local economies, place-based services, and social cohesion.

The election result also means there will now be a constitution, democracy and rights commission, and a royal commission on the operation of the justice system. Both were formally announced in the Queen’s speech.

The outcomes of these commissions could have a significant impact on how the constitution operates, and the routes available for challenging decisions by the government, if initial briefings turn out to be correct.

One area which may be of concern to some charities and NGOs is judicial review, with calls for potential restrictions in how it can be used. While this is rarely a tool within the reach of most charities due to the resources and capacity required, it has on a number of occasions served as a last line of defence, particularly where cases are related to human rights or the environment.

House of Lords reform

There is also a suggestion that ministers are considering a proposal to replace the House of Lords with a ‘House of Regions’. Individual suggestions and briefings on how the government might update the constitution should be taken with a pinch of salt for now, but it is probably true to say that this is the most vulnerable the House of Lords has been at any point. Since 2015, for the first time ever, the Conservatives have been in government without a corresponding majority in the House of Lords, meaning that many proposals have come under challenge in the second chamber.

If it happens, House of Lords reform would be significant for charities. The Lords has played an important role in enabling detailed scrutiny of legislation in a way that the House of Commons does not always do effectively, with that scrutiny regularly leading to legislative and policy change. That is not to say that any replacement would not be able to provide that, but changing the process for appointing, or directly electing, peers, would inevitably change the nature of the way the second chamber works, its purpose and its incentives.

Moving forward

Questions your organisation might want to consider:

  • Have you thought about how your organisation could potentially be affected by the result of Brexit negotiations at the end of the transition period?
  • Does your organisation have a clear idea of what it wants the country to look like after Brexit?
  • How will you change your approach to political influencing to reflect the election result and the current environment?
  • What insight does your organisation have that could contribute to parties’ attempts to appeal to those living in areas which are now the main electoral battleground?
  • How are you best able to get your voice heard politically, and what impact could constitutional changes have on that ability?