Political drivers

Adapting to post-Brexit arrangements

With a deal finally being agreed just before Christmas, charities are now adapting to new post-Brexit arrangements. The immediate impacts for charities appear to be limited, though it’s worth looking at arrangements for processing data, and charities that procure goods that are manufactured overseas should continue to consider their supply chains. While the ending of free movement will have implications for charities seeking to recruit, particularly for very specialist roles, the coronavirus pandemic has led to large numbers of redundancies across all sectors, so labour shortages and recruitment challenges are less likely to present problems in the short-term, but may need to be considered in long-term planning.

While Brexit is requiring adaptation to new rules, it’s important not to lose sight of some of the longer-term challenges and opportunities that organisations, particularly those seeking to influence policy, will need to be aware of.

The UK government prioritised a higher degree of control over policy in negotiations, which is reflected in the final deal. Because of the novel nature of this agreement, it’s not clear how this will play out. Non-regression clauses will in theory avoid a rolling back of rights, but as they are linked to impacts on trade and investment rather than requiring strict alignment, may still provide significant room for manoeuvre. That means charities will need to be vigilant where the government decides to move away from EU rules. And that also means there will be opportunities for charities to shape new approaches where previously EU rules had made that virtually impossible. The immediate removal of the tampon tax (VAT on women’s sanitary products) is the most obvious example, but other areas that charities might look at include procurement, and VAT more broadly.

It’s also important to remember that UK law and policy will still be informed by the EU. That could be formally through non-regression clauses and other commitments made in the deal, but it could also be informally as a result of wanting to do business with our closest trading bloc. This means that campaigners shouldn’t rule out the ability of the EU to set the agenda, and create change in the UK, through new rules. This will be particularly important for environmental organisations, where there is likely to be a degree of co-operation between the UK and the EU in any case, particularly with regard to climate change.

A possible split of the United Kingdom

Charities will head into next year with a distinct possibility that having left the European Union, the United Kingdom could split over the next couple of years.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) are clear favourites to win the election in May on an unambiguously clear platform of holding a further referendum on Scottish independence. Consistent poll leads suggest if that vote does take place, there’s a good chance we’d get the opposite of the result in 2014, though we should of course take polls conducted before a referendum has even been agreed, let alone a campaign being run, with a pinch of salt.

Arguably the biggest obstacle for Scottish independence could be the UK government, which must grant permission for a referendum to be held. Boris Johnson has so far been clear that he will not allow a new referendum to take place, and there are strong political reasons for the Conservatives to do so, but that position could be more difficult to maintain should the SNP win a majority in an election where independence is likely to feature heavily.

With that in mind, charities should be thinking about a world in which Scotland is no longer part of the UK. Many national charities already have distinct governance arrangements and approaches towards Scotland, but if independence is secured, these may need to be re-examined.

Independence would also have a significant impact on UK politics more generally. Maintaining the union has been a major priority for the Conservatives, and there would almost certainly be calls for Boris Johnson to resign, assuming he remains prime minister. While it’s difficult to say if that will happen, it would certainly weaken the government of the day.

As we’ve seen during the Brexit process, a Yes vote would also require a degree of negotiation of the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK. This would probably not be as challenging a task as agreeing a Brexit deal, but there are certainly issues, such as Scotland’s currency, where the two governments are unlikely to see eye to eye.

There would also be an electoral impact. The Conservative Party has consistently performed better in England and Wales than in Scotland, and while the SNP’s dominance of Scottish Westminster seats has made it harder for Labour to form a majority, this would close off the route of a Labour-SNP coalition. However, while this would make it more likely that the Conservatives will win future elections, Labour have won English majorities in the relatively recent past, including in 2005 when their majority was cut significantly overall after two landslide victories.

Will covid-19 splits cause long-term problems for the Conservatives?

New chancellor Rishi Sunak has responded to the pandemic with a series of major interventions costing tens of billions of pounds to combat the coronavirus, and a range of other policy measures that would have seemed unthinkable at the start of last year.

The fact that the Conservatives adopted an orthodox economic approach to dealing with this pandemic however of course does not suggest a unified approach within the party or even the cabinet, with the chancellor himself having encouraged people back to work, and taking a number of steps to rein in covid spending because of long-term concerns about the level of national debt.

Though it is probably fair to say that even without coronavirus, spending would have increased as the party seeks to move away from austerity, one of the internal debates to watch out for within government is how quickly to address the debt and whether to do so with tax rises or cuts.

Growing scepticism about lockdowns on the Conservative backbenches has also caused problems for the government with criticism of restrictions mainly coming from the right of the party. The specific concerns they have expressed are likely to become less of an issue over the next couple of years as restrictions are eased, but they have shown that concerns over Boris Johnson’s leadership are more widespread, and that managing backbench dissent is likely to be a major challenge in the run-up to the next election. The internal problems the prime minister faces present both opportunities and challenges for charity campaigners – it’s probably going to be easier to get backbenchers to speak out and back your campaigns, but could also make your asks vulnerable to significant backbench dissent.

A return to the centre ground for Labour?

With Sir Keir Starmer now having been in place as Labour leader for around nine months, the question of whether he would seek to align himself more with the left or right of the party seems to have been answered fairly firmly to the latter. He has clearly sought to break with his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and on the issues of the day has often disappointed many of those who supported Corbyn and Rebecca Long-Bailey in recent leadership contest.[1]

Labour’s return to the centre is also obscured by the political circumstances they are facing. The scale of Labour’s defeat in 2019 meant that a new leader who is not personally loyal to their predecessor was likely to draw a line under less popular elements of that leadership. But while the battle for strategy and messaging seems to have been won by the right of the party, the real battles ahead will be on policy. Corbynism remains a strong force within the party, and support for a policy programme clearly further to the left than the Miliband years extends beyond that faction in any case. However, the party’s frontbench may well choose to drop certain policies or otherwise shift policy rightwards, suggesting the kind of conflict we saw during the New Labour years between the frontbench and members, albeit with a different starting point.

One key difference in 2021 and for the next few years is the presence of a socialist campaign group, that, at over 30 members in the Commons, could be decisive if Labour were to form the government after the next election. It’s hard to see an outcome where Labour is in government without left MPs being influential in forcing concessions on legislation, so charities should still continue to engage with all sections of the party even if one currently seems in the ascendancy, as would normally be good advice.

So while the next few years may look on the surface like a return to the normal battle over the centre ground, there remains significant scope for opportunities for charities to influence beyond mainstream party opinion, meaning a comprehensive approach to influencing is still required.

Covid-19 to change politics and our ability to influence

The scale of government action required to deal with the public health, economic and logistical challenges presented by covid-19 has put significant pressure on government departments, though this may ease after a successful vaccine rollout. Brexit may also present additional capacity challenges in the early part of this year. Covid however has had less of an impact on the work of MPs than Brexit, so charities may find it easier to engage than in the 2015 and 2017 parliaments.

A longer-term concern for charities is what has been perceived as indifference towards the sector as a source of solutions to problems. Digital, Culture, Media and Sport secretary Oliver Dowden’s speech at the launch of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society did however acknowledge both the importance of civil society in addressing the fallout of the pandemic, and that there were gaps in the government’s knowledge of civil society. The standing of charities has probably improved within both government and parliament over the last year, but individual organisations will still have to demonstrate their value and credibility if they want campaigns to be listened to seriously, or to work with the government on implementing policy solutions.

Politics could also become more accessible. Charities based outside of London have always found it more difficult to engage with politicians at a national level, but the forcing of MPs and campaigners to adopt online meeting platforms could lead to a shift in expectations about how engagement happens. It may be both more convenient for parliamentarians and allow them to meet a wider range of organisations, so it seems likely that online meetings are likely to at least remain an option once the pandemic allows face-to-face engagement to resume. And while face-to-face meetings still have advantages, closeness to the levers of power is often one justification of maintaining a London office, so it could impact future discussions around location.

Above all, the pandemic has been an opportunity for charities and politicians alike to reflect on what we value when it comes to engagement, and you should take time to think about what lessons you can take forward beyond the pandemic.

Moving forward

Questions your organisation may want to consider:

  • Which challenges arising from Brexit and covid-19 are likely to be temporary for your organisation, and which require more long-term planning to resolve or mitigate?
  • Have you thought about what Scottish independence might mean for your organisation and your governance arrangements?
  • If you’re a national charity do you have relationships with a broad range of politicians reflecting the range of views across the parties?
  • If you’re a local charity are there more steps you could be taking to ensure local MPs are supportive?
  • Does the widespread uptake of online meetings offer you opportunities to be more involved in politics and policy at the national level?