Sir Keir Starmer celebrates Mid Bedfordshire by-election win with supporters.

How can civic society prepare for the next Parliament?

By Sunder Katwala 23 October 2023 4 minute read

Let us travel forward in time to Spring 2025. Keir Starmer is much more likely than Rishi Sunak to be Prime Minister – by a four to one probability if we take the betting markets as a guide.

But that could involve a stable majority government, a Labour-LibDem coalition or a shaky minority government. And perhaps another election within a year or two.

Nobody can be sure if Joe Biden or Donald Trump will be in the White House. That economic conditions will be tough – and money in short supply – is easier to predict.

Without a clear picture of 2025, how should charities prepare today for the next Parliament? By engaging with mission-led government and building relationships with potential new MPs across parties – including thinking about how to re-engage the right in opposition too.

A big moment – but no clear vision for civic society has yet emerged

If Labour do win the next election, it would be just the third time that an Opposition has entered government in four decades.

But Labour in opposition have spent little time re-thinking the relationship between the state and civic society.

This is in sharp contrast to how central civil society was to David Cameron’s public narrative in 2010. Or even to Labour’s pre-election thinking before 1997. This time there has been less bandwidth for politicians or charity leaders facing pandemics, wars, and economic crises.

So initially, a change of tone seems more likely than a grand reset of the state-civic society relationship.

Those at the sharp end of the most heated issues may find that a relief. But this may become a more distant, frustrating relationship within a year or two if little changes except the mood music.

How to engage with a mission-led government

Labour’s intended priorities are no secret. Keir Starmer wants a ’mission-led government’ – so civic help in achieving its five declared missions will be of interest. That is especially true if viable solutions are on offer, beyond critiques of what is going wrong and calls for more investment in everything that matters in our society.

Increasing growth is front-of-mind. The contours of NHS and energy strategy are becoming clearer. The ’how‘ for the mission of halving violent crime and violence against women and girls seems less developed.

“Breaking the barriers to opportunity” may prove the broadest-ranging mission.  Labour committed to devolving power locally, with a ‘take back control act’ in its first King’s speech. This may see a greater local role in employment and mental health support, alongside a broader commitment to review government procurement and contracting.

How can we ensure levelling up includes increasing social capital and civic connection – given its tendency to accrue to those places that already have most of it? This could become the central ‘exam question’ of the next era of thinking about the relationship between state policy and civil practice. It is a foundational challenge.

Charity voices will be more persuasive and legitimate when we can align what we say and do.

The third sector lags third behind the public and private sectors on ethnic diversity, so it is important that anxious conversations about diversity deficits now lead to sustained action.

Relationships, relationships, relationships

There will be more new MPs in the next Parliament that at any General Election since 2010 at least. Should Labour secure an overall majority, over half of the MPs for the governing party will be new. Half have been local councillors. Many have worked in civic society – and may help charities forge new partnerships.

A late election date may mean twelve more months to prepare. This Autumn, British Future began running briefing sessions with migration NGOs on the future class of 2024 under the Chatham House rule, to be updated as late selections take place.

Pooling efforts to profile new MPs could reduce opportunity costs, avoiding several dozen parallel efforts to collate the same data, before issue-based hubs convene around specific challenges.

Ultimately relationships are about contact. The campaign period is a chance to make a start, especially at the local constituency level. Finding capacity for parliamentary relationship building may be important for impact.

Repair the relationship on the right

In an era of identity polarisation, the relationship between Conservatives and charities has deteriorated.

Commentators see the Conservative Party shifting rightwards. The candidate selections so far complicate that narrative.  Grounded localists, from all wings of the party, have out-performed candidates emphasising more of the ‘war on woke’.

If the Conservative Party does leave office, there will be a range of contested critiques of the lessons of the last decade. The strategic challenge may be how the party could again bridge geographic, generational, and diversity divides to secure sufficient support to govern in 2030s Britain.

It would be good not just for the charity sector, but for the broader climate of public conversation, to establish more constructive dialogue across the mainstream right. Building long-term relationships will matter too given that, voters will be deciding in four and eight years’ time whether to change the government again. And they may still be volatile times.

Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future and author of How To Be a Patriot.

Image Credit: Keir Starmer on flickr.


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