The sector's political climate
Building towards an election in 2023 or 2024
After two snap elections in 2017 and 2019, we are now in a period of relative political stability despite significant challenges of the covid-19 pandemic and Brexit.
This means charities should be able to plan their influencing activity with the expectation that there will be an election held next year.
The next election is set for 2 May 2024, though the bill currently going through parliament to overturn the Fixed Term Parliaments Act will make it easier for the government to call an early election. Some speculate the government will choose to go to the polls early, but it seems highly unlikely that there will be a general election before 2023.
This is due to the government’s healthy majority, a dip in their polling numbers and the - at best - mixed results of snap elections for governing parties.
We expect to see political parties start to develop their long-term policy agendas in the next year. Labour has already started its policy review process, with firmer policy plans expected to take shape over the next year.
Continuation of a culture war
Charities, alongside other institutions, have increasingly been drawn into the culture war spotlight. A culture war can broadly be defined as a conflict between those with different views about identity, values and culture.
In the voluntary sector, we have seen politicians criticise some charities for their stance on these issues. Politicians are likely to continue to seek dividing lines where they feel there is political advantage in doing so, so we should expect that culture wars will be a part of our political environment in the years ahead.
The Charity Commission has investigated well-known charities because of complaints about their actions on equity, diversity, and inclusion.
High profile investigations of the National Trust, Barnardo’s and the Runnymede Trust found all had acted appropriately within charity law and Charity Commission guidance. But, there remain potential pitfalls for other charities, particularly those operating in unfamiliar areas.
Charities must do what they think is right in support of their charitable purpose, which sometimes may mean taking unpopular stances. Providing charities are focusing on their charitable objectives, carefully considering the issues and implications, and taking their members with them, the Charity Commission will be on their side.
Public opinion has proved to be more nuanced on these issues than the standard ‘woke versus anti-woke’ narrative would suggest. The government has found itself on the wrong side of public opinion, most notably in the row over England’s footballers taking the knee before Euro 2020 games and the team’s approach to social issues.
Separately, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s (RNLI) policy to intervene in saving migrants at sea is consistent with their charitable objectives but also appeared to be backed by public opinion, helping to isolate critics of RNLI's work.
Charities will be most successful when they can find ways to create consensus on issues. They must think beyond public opinion and will want to take a principled approach towards engaging with a range of issues. Though clearly, it will be easier for them to do this if it is backed by at least a significant section of the public.
The clear political priority for the government is levelling up, which is unlikely to change before the next election. A government white paper is expected in 2022.
Levelling up refers to an economic rebalancing towards areas, particular non-metropolitan areas in the north of England, that have missed out on the gains in prosperity felt in better-off areas.
With the Conservatives having built a new coalition of voters that is more dependent on social values than previous class-based support, there could be some tension between providing investment in more deprived regional constituencies that have previously not been Conservative seats, and satisfying the desire of traditional Conservative voters for lower taxes, and a smaller state.
The government hopes that by stimulating local economies in areas of the country that have not experienced the benefits of previous periods of growth, this tension can be addressed.
This has led to a focus on infrastructure that is expected to directly lead to economic growth. However, many areas being targeted for investment also have a disproportionate lack of connectivity and engagement.
Charities and social enterprises have argued that social infrastructure will be crucial to levelling up, and there could be significant opportunities for charities to contribute to this work.
If the government takes the need to renew connections within communities there may also be opportunities for existing and new civil society organisations to lead this work.
There are potential opportunities arising from deeper devolution. We have seen a significant transfer, or in some cases, consolidation, of powers over the last ten years, and so charities that aren’t considering the local and regional landscape, and the decision-makers within it, are likely to be missing opportunities to further their cause.
One challenge is the different structures and powers between authorities and areas. Some areas now have a combined authority structure, with a directly elected mayor, and significant powers in areas such as health and transport, while many areas retain more traditional local government structures.
Charities working at a local level will need to understand the specific structures in their area. This can present a challenge to national charities seeking to influence local decision-makers, particularly where these organisations don’t have local groups.
Metro mayors are bridging this gap between local and national – firmly rooted in a locality, but with power and profile on the national stage – and are a key group of decision-makers to engage.
Challenges to campaigning
The political environment is continuing to create challenges for campaigners working to generate lasting social change for the issues and people they care about. Some potential challenges for the year ahead are discussed below.
Managing relationships with government
The initial response to the pandemic saw several successful collaborations with government and campaign wins. However, campaigners are now working in an increasingly resistant political environment.
The Sheila McKechnie 2020 campaigner survey found that 63% of respondents said politicians have become more negative to campaigning in 2020 (up from 45% in 2019).
With a large government majority in the House of Commons, tactics such as appealing to opposition MPs will not achieve the desired results.
The government is heavily influenced by the desires of the public. As seen with the success of Marcus Rashford’s school meals campaign, winning over the hearts and minds of the press and public can shift government decisions.
Taking on a values-based approach can help campaigners reframe an issue to align with Conservative perspectives and appeal to their motivational principles. Refugee Action’s Lift the Ban report is an example of this values-based approach.
Amending or incorporating new ways of engaging is not to suggest that campaigners should never publicly disagree with government; rather, be strategic in picking battles and creating opportunities.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill
The bill introduces new powers allowing police to decide where, when and how people can protest and increases penalties for those breaching police conditions on protest.
It would restrict protest based on subjective conditions such as noise and nuisance, which will be left to the judgement of the police and home secretary to interpret.
Protest is a fundamental tool for democratic expression and social transformation. It forces people to take note of an issue and helps amplify the voice of those marginalised by society.
These proposed restrictions and tougher penalties could mean that fewer people are willing to participate in protest, including those already subject to systemic discrimination.
By limiting who is willing to protest, this new legislation would further compound the inequalities ingrained within our society.
The Elections bill contains new rules which could create confusion for charities, including the requirement to register as a non-party campaigner if they spend at least £10,000 on campaigning that meets certain tests during the registered period.
Charities may be reluctant to register in case they are perceived to be more political than they are.
Ensuring compliance with these rules will require considerable time and resources, which will be more likely to impact smaller charities who may not have enough capacity, or the policy and legal expertise.
As well as this, the spending threshold includes the costs associated with joint campaigning, which could discourage charities from forming collaborative campaigns.
Questions for your organisation to consider
- How are you currently engaging with government? Are you achieving your desired result?
- Are there alternative ways you could be sharing your message and working towards your goals? Are there any upcoming opportunities which you could take advantage of?
- How will you engage with political parties ahead of the next general election?
- Could your work support levelling up, and how will you communicate that to government?
- What would your approach be to dealing with a contentious issue, and does your governance support that?
- How can you improve links with local and regional decision-making bodies?
- Will your organisation be campaigning in the lead up to the next election? How will you make sure you understand the rules around non-party campaigning? Will you need to register as a non-party campaigner?
- How might the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill impact your approach to campaigning? Will you need to amend how you protest? How will you ensure that anyone attending a protest organised by you is aware of the potential consequences?
- Consider the Fabian Society pamphlet on addressing culture wars.
- Examine the joint report from Bond, Quakers in Britain, ACEVO, NCVO, Sheila McKechnie Foundation and Unlock Democracy, with the Civil Society Voice network on Campaigning during Coronavirus.
- Explore the Shelia McKechnie Foundation Campaigner Survey 2020.
- Access our guidance on planning a campaign.
- Read our blog summarising Electoral Commission guidance for charities.
- Check out the Bates Wells blog examining the impact of the new Elections Bill on charities and issue-based campaigners.
- Review our guidance on campaigning within the law.
- Take a look at the Bond blog on the impact of the Policing Bill and the threat to global civic space.
- See the Sheila McKechnie Foundation blog explaining why the Policing Bill is a direct attack on our right to protest.