Podcast interview: What could a general election mean for charities?

03 May 2024 Interviews

Chris Walker, policy and public affairs manager at NCVO


The next general election is imminent, and speculation as to when it will be is rife. With a May election now ruled out, it could be any day now when the date is announced. The latest possible date the election could be is on 28 January 2025. 

With the Labour Party leading in opinion polls, many anticipate a change of government at the next election, and charities are taking the opportunity to engage with parties across the political spectrum to get the issues they care about on the next government’s agenda. 

In this new podcast episode, reporter Sam Wait speaks to Chris Walker, policy and public affairs manager at NCVO, who outlines what charities can expect in the lead up to the general election, the opportunities it presents to them and what they should keep in mind when campaigning around this time. 

You can listen to the interview now below or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, and Pocket Casts, where you can find our other podcast episodes.


Sam Wait: Hello and welcome to another Civil Society podcast. I'm Sam Wait, a reporter at Civil Society, and today's episode features a conversation with Chris Walker, policy and public affairs manager at NCVO, where we discuss the upcoming general election and its impact on charities. 

Sam Wait: Chris, thank you so much for joining us on the Civil Society podcast. The reason I wanted to speak to you today is because I know you co-authored and NCVO’s 2024 Road Ahead report, which identifies trends in the charity sector that are likely to impact the future. So, one section of the report is focused on the political landscape, which is what will mainly be focusing on today. But I want to start off by asking why you think the lead up to the next general election is such an important time for charities.

Chris Walker: Yeah, thanks. So, I think the most of the key thing really is it’s just it's a really prime opportunity to put the issues that matter to you at the front of the agenda, so not only is it an opportunity to directly influence parties, but it's also a time when you can get that debate on policy, up the agenda and to make it more high profile and get people talking about things. And the nature of elections is that they allow you not just to highlight what's going wrong, but also how it can be fixed and get that in front of a slightly wider audience than you might normally. 

And then just generally, it's a really great time to be engaging with politicians and then build new relationships, so to take the opportunity to build those relationships that are going to stand you in really good stead across the parliament. And particularly, there's an opportunity with this election. There's always turnover at elections, but we're expecting this time there's going to be a particularly large number of new MPs. 

So, this week we've reached 100 MPs announcing they're standing down. And the polls at the moment are suggesting that a lot of seats will change hands as well. So, understanding that things will be really different in the new parliament and taking the opportunity to give yourself a bit of a head start for when we get past the election. Those relationships that you build are gonna be things that will help you in your influencing work in the next few years and potentially longer.

Sam Wait: Great. And NCVO that step before that there is a need for a renewed partnership between government and civil society. So, I wondered if you could tell me a bit more about that. Why is that and what would a better partnership look like in practice?

Chris Walker: Yeah, so I think the starting point, for that partnership is one based on respect and with an understanding of the role that civil society can play, and working towards a shared agenda for the country. 

So, we know that government won't always agree with the sector, or be able to do what charities want all the time. But it's important for government to be welcoming, challenging, welcoming challenge and being prepared to listen. So, in practical terms, we also think is really important that this is reflected across government. 

We've often had a good constructive relationship with ministers and officials working directly on charity policy. But civil society is active across all government departments, with varying different understandings of how charities work and how the organisations we represent deliver services. 

So, we need to have that positive, consistent approach reflected across different departments. And we want to make sure a new partnership lasts as well. So, we're thinking about how we can make sure this is embedded in the work of government, you know, it's one thing to have good relationships that help that help that work. But we can't be completely reliant on that. There's got to be some kind of structure that allows that partnership and a better culture I think of working between government and civil society to make that long-lasting. 

And then alongside that kind of bigger strategic picture, we think there are lots of small things that you can do just to shape a partnership and the government's cultures towards their relationships with civil society. 

So things like looking at the guidance for officials on how they should conduct consultations. So we know for example, having short consultation periods can make it harder for small charities in particular, to be able to respond. And then things like making sure impact assessments reflect the specific challenges facing charities. So, often they'll be very focused on what the impact is on business and they weren't kind of recognised there were these particular challenges that might affect charities. 

And so if we kind of address all of these things, that's going to help us to be able to kind of contribute in the way in a way that is going to be helpful to government as they take plans forward.

Sam Wait: And how should charities lead up to the general election with that in mind, with it being such a prime opportunity for influencing government and just the agenda in society?

Chris Walker: Yeah, absolutely. So as with anything else, really, it's important to think about what you want to achieve and the resources you have at your disposal. 

So, one particular problem that might come up is that there are some things you can't really do until the campaign itself. So for example, organising hustings. But when that is the case, you can think about what you'll need and have a plan in place for what you'll do when the election is announced in the following days. But I think generally it's probably a good idea to think about what your key influencing aims are going to be. 

So even if you're pushing for quite a broad range of asks, as we will be, having a sense of what the two or three asks you're prioritising will help you to be able to communicate clearly and really focus on those key messages. Actually in my experience, a very common question from politicians will be to ask you, well, if we could do one thing, what should it be? So, I think, need to try and have an answer to that question.

Sam Wait: Even if there might be many.

Chris Walker: Yes, prioritising that can be quite challenging when you're working across lots of different areas. But I think you really have to kind of think, you know, even when you have that sort of broad agenda, what why is that, you know, what, is that one thing that you really want people to take away?

Sam Wait: Yeah, what, what will they remember? Sort of thing. 

In the report, you warn that the election could cause delays in charities receiving public contracts and other grant agreements. Is there any way that charities can prepare for this?

Chris Walker: Well, it's very difficult, because there's not much you can do to actually address the issue. I think it's important to identify where you might have those challenges. And I think it's very important to be proactive about it and talk to officials about the impact of those delays. 

If there are important ongoing projects that might be affected, then you might need to think about alternative sources of funding. And how you can ensure you don't lose that important work and key skills as a result of any delay. And then I think it's really about keeping a dialogue open with officials. They won't be able to make decisions on things which need ministerial approval, but they might be able to ensure things are prioritised after the election. And at the very least, they might be able to give you some insight on where things have got to and what might be blocking any decisions from being taken.

Sam Wait: And you've spoken a bit about how, with there being such a large turnover of MPs there are really ample opportunities for charities to engage with and make relationships with people in government. 

So, we've seen a lot in recent months that the Labour Party in particular is engaging with civil society a lot. But in the report you state that charity should speak to all political parties no matter hint who ends up in Parliament. Can you explain why this is important?

Chris Walker: Yeah, so it's important, I think, for a few reasons. So firstly, we can just never assume what the election result is going to be anyway, even when the polls are heavily favouring one party. We know things can change during the campaign. And we have had surprise results in the past. Secondly, it’s really important from a charity law perspective. So, charities need to be able to demonstrate our political independence. And one way of doing that is by engaging constructively with all parties. That I think it's important to remember it doesn't have to be the same type or level of engagement for every party. And you should be thinking about the best way to use your resources. 

But finally, it's just good practice and influencing really, the opposition has always been important to you when issues come before parliament and building that cross-party support is the best way to ensure scrutiny of relevant policy and the kinds of questions that get asked so, you know, even if you thought the extreme might happen and there was a kind of landslide result, opposition parties still have really key opportunities to set the agenda on government policy and ask the questions that the media are gonna be asking whether it's like responding to statements or asking questions in parliament. So I think any influencing strategy which doesn't consider all the major parties is going to be weaker as a result.

Sam Wait: Yeah, and the opposition in that sense, are key – whoever they are going to be – are key for holding the government to account.

Chris Walker: Yeah, absolutely. There is so much power that is kind of like held with what the opposition does in terms of the criticisms that are made of the government of the day so I think it’s really important to have that relationship.

Sam Wait: And um, charity campaigning has been an issue an issue. Well, a hot topic, shall we say, recently. What should charities keep in mind when campaigning before or during an election?

Chris Walker: Yeah, I mean, I'd recommend that any charity takes the time to understand the rules around campaigning. But it's also really important that we don't fear that those rules are going to stop us from campaigning. There is as I said, an opportunity to be involved in the election. And by looking at the advice that we've developed with ACEVO and the other guidances out there, you can make sure that you take those things into account when making decisions about your campaign activity, without it necessarily making you feel like you need to stop. And then I think the other thing really is just about making sure you take that strategic approach. So thinking about the key areas you want to influence and how you going to do that.

Sam Wait: How wary should charities be have been dragged into ‘culture wars’?

Chris Walker: Well, charities shouldn't be avoiding important topics because they're worried about being dragged into discussions. But there is a heightened risk to charities being drawn into controversy during the election. 

And we know that there are issues that can come up this time around and that does present a risk. So, I think firstly, really important, just keep your purpose in mind. 

So, think about why you're speaking about something and be able to be really clear about how it relates to your purpose and why you're saying what you are. And while there are risks actually, it's important to remember election could be an opportunity for you to influence debates around these issues. That might not easily be possible. But also, you probably need to be proactive in identifying risks. 

So, we often find that when these issues come up, it's not because an organisation has intentionally entered the controversial debate. But because there's somebody out there who might have spotted something on your website there could have been sitting there for months or even years in some cases. So particularly if you're a high-profile organisation, it might be worth trying to identify those potential risks and how you would respond if a story came up.

Sam Wait: So, moving on from that, will the results, do you think, of the election affect charities differently? Whoever gets into power?

Chris Walker: Yeah. So, I mean, the short answer is they will and they won't really say what the resulting election will do is create a general change and influence environment that everyone will be operating in. So, everyone's going to need to understand how the next government makes decisions, how those can be challenged in parliament and who the influence influential voices, in government and parliament, who you need to get onside.

So, certainly in those early days of new government I would really encourage people to share intelligence with colleagues and other organisations to find out what they're learning and make sure we learn from each other. But for some organisations, there will be some differences. 

So, if there's a change of party in government, it will become easier for some organisations engaged because their issue will be much higher than the agenda, you know ministers will be more favourable towards things, but equally for other organisations that have had really good access, it might become harder. And also, I think there's just a much broader question about what it means for your relationships. So, some charities might find that a relatively niche issue. They might have found they're very reliant on a particular MP or couple of MPs who have strong personal interests. So, with so many MPs stepping down or potentially going into government, everyone's gonna be looking at what that means for building potential new relationships. And if you've got those like really reliable contacts, not there anymore, how do you sort of replace those and make sure you still got that same ability to influence?

Sam Wait: And, this is a difficult question, but how do you replace those?

Chris Walker: Well, I think you can only really do it by talking to people to be honest. So I mean, one thing that I would, I would encourage churches to do if you've got the capacity is to do some research on on candidates and who might be those MPs after the election. 

And if you can find people who look like they've got that experience so for us, we're always interested in looking at candidates and saying, you know, have they got experience of working with with charities? Have they got a background in the sector because if they have, then they're much more likely to want to engage with this and talk about charity issues after the election, and yeah, so if you have if you can identify those people who may well be MPs after the election, who might be interested, then you should approach them before the election and, and see kind of like, where they stand on things. 

So, it's, I think, definitely worth trying to get a head start if you can, but, you know, some of those relationships are gonna be difficult to replace. And I guess the other thing I'd say is, you don't have to have like all of this sorted on day one there will be time after the election to do a lot more about engaging with newbies.

Sam Wait: And is there one key takeaway that you'd give to charities during this time?

Chris Walker: Yeah, I'd say like over above everything else. Just being aware. This is a really big opportunity to show you how you can influence over the next few years. So you have said there's gonna be lots of new MPs, the new government and that really gives you the opportunity to build the kind of relationships you need your influence and to be successful. But equally, there's no need to panic at this stage. This opportunity isn't participate in the next few months, probably not even so you know, straight after the election. So I think it's a good idea. They, as I said, are to be thinking about how you can target candidates now. But there will be continuing opportunities to work in the government and new MPs beyond the election.

Sam Wait: And I wanted to mention as well, that ACEVO and NCVO have got manifesto coming up. I wondered if you could tell me a bit more about that.

Chris Walker: Yeah, so I mean, the manifesto is very much looking to really set up the stall of the sector and what we can do as a sector, so really thinking about how we can have that much more effective relationship between government and civil society, so we can address the challenges in society. And then we'll be setting out some really key priorities around around where that you know, activity is most needed.

Sam Wait: Great, thank you. 

Thank you for listening to this podcast episode. And thank you to Chris for sharing his insights. If you enjoyed this episode, please like and subscribe. We hope to do more podcasts in the future and if you have any comments get in touch. 

For more news, interviews, opinion and analysis about charities and the voluntary sector, sign up to receive the free Civil Society daily news bulletin here.

More on