Government and the Voluntary Sector, Policy, campaigns & research, Policy

Are the scales finally starting to fall from our eyes?

Many of the leaders in our sector have tried every possible insider and outsider strategy to influence Boris Johnson’s government over the past nearly three years, during extraordinarily difficult conditions not seen in most lifetimes. Some may have had some successes in certain areas, but in broad terms it largely hasn’t worked.

Contrary to the pontifications of various armchair critics, this hasn’t been because those leaders haven’t been highly skilled, worked extremely hard, proposed concrete solutions to problems in good faith, or tried to figure out what Ministers and officials want and how charities could help deliver their policy agendas where there might be a good fit. It’s not about a supposedly ‘leftie’ charity sector filled with a fifth-column of Labour party people either – that’s a red herring. The challenges have been far deeper.

Here’s the reality:

This hasn’t ever been a ‘normal’ government, it’s been a permanent campaign. That’s not a party-political statement, it’s a comment based on years of close observation. This has been a government which never operated within the usual policymaking structures or processes. Even if it did in certain departments or areas, policies and intricately crafted agreements could be ripped up overnight by Number 10 enforcers and party hacks. This government has been at its core transgressive and rule-breaking but also incredibly centralising – actually in deeply unconservative ways. Perhaps ironically, these very traits are now playing a big role in the collapsing house of cards.

It’s been a government seemingly bent on degrading or destroying long-standing institutions, principles and norms of accountability that rein in executive power – from standards in public life, to transparency requirements, to the Electoral Commission, to the independence of broadcasters, to hard-won rights and freedoms of civil society.

It’s also from day one felt like a government of permanent crisis, instability and policy churn. A government that can’t even agree on its own ‘facts’ from one hour to the next. And ominously, it’s been a government that views any disagreement or non-alignment with its views or policies as political opposition – to be attacked and ‘othered’ in the press and on social media. That includes the charity sector, which, when making perfectly valid criticisms of flawed policy, has been accused of being ‘woke’ or ‘against the will of the people’ rather than having its expertise and experience taken seriously.

Most importantly, at its core this has been a government whose leaders seem to be without integrity or honour. This flowed from the very top but functioned on cabinet complicity and individual leaders appearing to sacrifice basic morality for their own ends. The sheer brass neck and bald ambition of many of them have been on full display over the past days. It has been a government that not only lied, but rewarded lying – in fact, it demanded lying as a criterion for high office; it funnelled and filtered liars up into its higher echelons. It elevated artifice to an almost subconscious, internalised world-view. We’ve been so gas-lighted we may have lost sight of the full extent of the rot, but now the scales seem to be finally falling from our eyes.

The lack of integrity has important repercussions for whatever comes next. At the time of writing, Boris Johnson is reported to be announcing his resignation. We will see. But we have to remember that many of the leading contenders to be his successor have been fully signed up participants in everything that has taken place until now. They have been willing enablers, right up to the point where they finally determined that their own prospects might be better served elsewhere. Unless a different faction of the Conservative party wins out in a leadership contest, I wouldn’t expect too much to change with the next administration.

Individual charity leaders and our sector as a whole have some hard decisions to make.  Should charities cooperate with a government led by these sorts of people, unless they somehow really have no choice? Isn’t there a danger that charity brands are tarnished by association? What policy goals are conceivably worth the compromise?

It’s true that in ‘the sector’ there’s too much concern with the national situation and not enough about the local – which is much more important for most charities. But it’s the national government that’s been eviscerating local authority budgets for over a decade. It’s national government that has cruelly decided to deport desperate asylum seekers to another continent, failed to support the millions needing food banks, encouraged egregious attacks on individual charities in the media, refused to uplift basic benefits during a cost-of-living crisis not seen in decades.

Make no mistake, the coming days, weeks and months will be a rough ride. There will be more churn, more chaos, more half-baked policy announcements thrown around like chaff to try and keep the gutter press onside. Even with new leadership, things may get worse before they get better. There will continue to be upheaval and uncertainty, making it even more difficult for our sector to keep picking up the pieces that it already does.

Despite these challenges, the events of this week show it’s well past time to start thinking about a different political future, whatever colour it may be, and look beyond the current paradigm. The next General Election could be months away. I think it’s unlikely we will see a major change of course until that happens, but it could happen sooner than anyone expected.

We need to flip the script and start thinking hard about what future governments of whichever party need to do for society – for the people we serve – and make that case effectively and truthfully.