In a political world where leaks are routine, Theresa May’s announcement of an election campaign seems to have caught everyone by surprise. Charities will not have made detailed plans for an election, so it’s worth thinking about what we should be doing to make sure we’re part of the debate.
What happens next?
The first hurdle to cross will be to call an election under the procedure set out in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Labour’s announcement that they will be voting for a motion to call an early election means it should be a formality to get the two thirds of MPs required to satisfy the requirements of the Act, avoiding the need for a formal vote of no confidence and a 14 day period in which another party could seek to form an alternative government.
Parliament will dissolve 25 days before the nominated election date, but this can be amended by statutory instrument, as was done in 2015 to allow a longer campaign. We’ll have to wait to see when the campaign begins in earnest, but in practice it has already begun.
How can charities prepare?
The first thing for charities to do is refamiliarise themselves with Charity Commission election campaigning guidance to ensure they are compliant with charity law surrounding campaigning during elections and the Lobbying Act.
Much has been made of the effect of the Lobbying Act on charity campaigning during elections and you should make sure you are familiar with the law, but remember that most charities are unlikely to meet the definition of controlled expenditure if they campaign on a cross-party basis on the substance of policies.
The dynamics of a snap election are going to be very different than normal, when we have a rough timescale even if we don’t know the exact date. Candidate engagement is going to be much harder, not least because a significant proportion of those who will be standing on 8 June will not have been selected yet, and a major hustings plan will be more difficult to co-ordinate.
One of the key milestones of any campaign is the publication of party manifestos. When an election date is known, parties will be working on the policy contained in those manifestos for a year or more beforehand. Obviously that detailed work can’t be completed before June, so expect shorter Brexit-focused manifestos that draw a lot on 2015 policies.
The parties’ policy gurus will already be thinking about what goes in, so finding out quickly who to submit recommendations to will be important for charities that want their voice to be heard in the campaign and in the next parliament. One word of caution, approval for new radical ideas is going to be much harder to achieve in such a short timescale, so aside from the obvious need to influence policies around Brexit, I would focus on encouraging parties to reaffirm existing commitments.
What will we be doing?
For our part, we’ll be making the case for the voluntary sector and volunteering to help solve many of the country’s problems. We know that volunteering can be an amazing route to improving skills and making new connections, changing people’s lives and bonding communities closer together. We know that voluntary organisations can run high-quality, efficient public services, for example, but that they’re often excluded from doing so. And most pressingly on the policy front, we’ll be highlighting the important role that the sector has to play in shaping Brexit policies. We want to make sure that Brexit doesn’t mean weakening or removing important safeguards for people and the environment. Charities must be involved in advising on and scrutinising proposals at every step of the way.
NCVO’s chief executive, Sir Stuart Etherington, has already called for European nationals in the UK to be allowed to stay. Charities will need visa arrangements that work for sectors such as social care and medical research, which depend on the involvement of staff who’ve moved here from around Europe. And charities must be involved in designing replacements – better targeted, more coherent ones – for EU programmes in areas such as employment and skills training.
It’s going to be a much busier couple of months for charity campaigners than we were expecting, but as always an election provides an excellent opportunity to make the case for the changes we want to see, and to make sure that the voice of charities is heard loud and clear.