Duncan Shrubsole, Director of Policy, Partnerships and Communications shares his views on how the voluntary sector can mobilise behind a changing political landscape in 2017.
With Theresa May’s speech finally setting out what she thinks Brexit means and with Trump’s inauguration, this is the week that the 2016 chickens came home to roost and reality dawned as to what these momentous events might start to mean now and for the years to come.
It is difficult for many of us not to be despondent but we are the voluntary sector who have stopped things, built things, changed things, literally saved lives in the face of all kinds of adversity so we need to dust ourselves off and get busy. A few thoughts on how we might respond….
Not that long ago people were bemoaning how politics was boring and politicians all same old same old, well not anymore!
Politics has prompted water-cooler conversations for months now and about the really fundamental questions of identify, nationalism, sovereignty, immigration, what kind of nation we are and what to be, in turn inspiring debate, people to register, vote or campaign – perhaps for the first time – and dividing families and friends.
The tectonic plates have shuddered, shaken and shifted and we don’t know yet where it will end.
As charities we cannot nor should we be partisan in politics but partisan for politics, for it is politics that will decide the type of Brexit we have and the type of Britain we become – and indeed whether the UK of four nations survives. As the focus for law making becomes solely Westminster and the Devolved Assemblies, we will need to be campaigning effectively and smartly, making the case for the causes and issues, speaking up for and alongside those who otherwise won’t be heard.
But whilst policy and legislative change is the bread and butter of improving lives, perhaps at times as a sector we have been too complacent, thinking that a new law, Directive or regulation alone will get us closer to the line of social justice, failing to make the big picture arguments from first principles and crucially direct to the public.
The current scrutiny of international aid is a clear example – winning the political case for enshrining 0.7% of GDP in law was one thing but, unless we win hearts and minds, demonstrate compelling results, build the narratives and constituencies for that commitment, and more broadly for the kind of country and world we want, then progress will always be limited or vulnerable.
We have to learn from the simplicity but compelling power of the winning slogans of “Take Back Control” and “Make America Great Again”.
And if ever there was an inspiration for the need to stick to your guns, note how the small group of individuals who always wanted to take us out of the EU battled in the margins for decades to eventually win over the mainstream.
Whilst the global great and good are enshrined in Davos trying to understand and structure the new world order, conversely local has perhaps never been more important. For what was happening on people’s high streets was a key determinant of how people voted – from concern at the changing nature of Boston in Lincolnshire driving the highest Leave vote, to the closure of factories in Michigan putting Trump in the White House.
It is the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan’s, challenge to balance leading a global city of many migrants that is also the capital of Brexit Britain, alongside tackling it’s deep seated challenges of poverty and lack of housing. And this year will see the first elections for new Metro Mayors of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.
But more locally still, it is at neighbourhood level that we as communities will decide how we integrate or divide.
And to help shape and build our new country from the bottom up in every community we are blessed with many fantastic local charities – indeed the vast majority of the voluntary sector in the UK is small and local. But such charities are assets that need to be nurtured and supported too, and sadly – as our recent report highlighted – too often contracting and commissioning does the opposite.
Money, Money, Money
The quiet but ever present reality for 2017 and beyond is going to remain extreme pressures on public spending. The crisis facing the NHS and social care has already rightly hit the headlines but across the board the state is creaking and cracking, particularly at local level.
Take Birmingham, the UK’s largest local authority which has endured years of cuts to with many more to come. But within the aggregate reductions have been disproportionate cuts on those services used most by the vulnerable – homelessness, youth and children’s services have been decimated with direct impacts, such as a quadrupling of street homelessness – yet bin collections and libraries, used by the majority, have not been reduced.
All politics and spending is about winners and losers and typically the most influential get a larger share of the cake. As a regular user and indeed grandson of a librarian I know their vital role but I wish that those who man the barricades to defend a library, would show a similar concern when services used primarily by the vulnerable are hit.
And Brexit will add new dimensions, with funds lost from leaving the EU and new costs to meet plus any fallout from our changing economic circumstances. As a sector we must ensure we are speaking up for those who will not be at the table or politically powerful but also making sure that our longer term social and economic challenges are not ignored.
So tough issues confront us internationally, nationally and locally but the voluntary sector, civil society, charities, individually and collectively have never been more needed. And we need to gear up and get on with it. I would suggest five “Cs” should be central to our approach, more Conversations, Co-operation, Coalitions, Campaigns, Creativity.
- Conversations – we need to get out of our bunkers and comfort zones and be actively generating debate, and crucially with those who we don’t agree.
- We need better co-operation between charities, particularly between large and small to replace the competition and unfair practices of commissioning.
- We need new partnerships and coalitions, not just between charities, but between usual and unusual suspects, across the political divides and between voluntary, private and public sectors.
- We need to be campaigning for the changes we want to see, utilising all the tools of digital as well as plain old people power.
- And we need creativity at every level, not least in seeking to attract and generate new sources of revenue and engaging new audiences.
2016 gave some great examples of what can be achieved with resolution and effectiveness, from the campaign across Parliament for the Lord Dubs amendment on refugees, to the charities out there in Calais or on the Med helping refugees when no one else would. Years of campaigning by Shelter and others led to the Government banning letting agent’s fees and by grass-root women’s groups to the vote to ratify the Istanbul Convention. Crisis’ No One Turned Away campaign, secured cross party commitment to expanding the homelessness safety net to include single people.
And at the Foundation we were particularly pleased that the Charities Minister, Rob Wilson responded to the concerns raised by ourselves and others that commissioning isn’t working, particularly for small and medium sized charities, and announced new measures.
And this year already, despite every major medical opinion possible having spoken out about the pressures the NHS was under, it was the Red Cross describing it as a “Humanitarian Emergency” which cut through to the public and politicians
Each of these examples demonstrate the five Cs and more, but we need to go above and beyond. With every crisis or challenge there are also opportunities. Our country needs us – so let’s get busy and keep us posted with what you’re up to @LBFEW
As a Foundation we will be doing our bit in 2017 starting with funding frontline charities across England and Wales plus supporting them to build their capabilities; keeping the spotlight on poor commissioning and helping the sector to develop, particularly around domestic and sexual abuse; launching new research to help small and medium charities understand the landscape and plan ahead; supporting the Independent Inquiry into the future of Civil Society and work to understand how social change happens to inform and embolden a new generation of campaigning.