I was struck not only by the broad consensus of speakers from different organisations but even more so by the feeling among delegates that we cannot stand by as a sector any longer. We must engage with the Brexit debate.
In my short speech I made four key introductory points.
First, any form of Brexit will lead to a weaker economy, less money available for critical public expenditure (more austerity, in other words) and a reinforcing of the structural social and economic divisions and inequality across the country
Second, the voluntary and community sector does not hold back from commenting on and challenging public policy relating to welfare reforms, homelessness or poverty. Given that Brexit is the most existential issue facing our country, it is wrong for the sector to be silent.
Third, there has been an absence or even a failure of national sector leadership on this issue from the likes of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and even Navca, of which I am now the chair.
Fourth, the sector’s interventions should be focused on the needs, rights and experiences of beneficiaries and communities, not on institutional self-interest. And too much of the limited commentary from the sector seems to have been about the latter, not the former.
Sector leaders have been too timid. They might feel that not all their members or organisations in the sector would support their views on Brexit or even wish to engage in the discourse on any basis. Others have claimed that Charity Commission guidance and the lobbying act – and even gagging clauses – have limited or even prevented their involvement in this massive public policy debate. I suspect that these are excuses for a desire to avoid what might be construed as contentious. This is poor leadership and has not served the sector well. We have time to change this.
It seems that the Brexit debate will run for some time beyond the European parliament elections later this month. Even if the government was able to secure a parliamentary majority for its withdrawal agreement, we face the prospect of several years of negotiation and debate on the long-term relationship between the UK and the EU.
There is some evidence that the leave vote in 2016 happened because of vast social and economic inequality, the feeling of "being left behind" and a remoteness from political decision-making. The conference was not the forum for that debate – nor, indeed, is this piece – but the VCS cannot and should not ignore these issues. In fact, it has never ignored them, though perhaps we could have given greater voice to what some communities were feeling and how this could or would articulate itself in xenophobia, populist politics and many other ways.
We can learn the lessons and make this a priority. At the conference on Friday, however, I made the point that these divisions and inequalities are structural and systematic and the 2016 referendum highlighted them in some ways. Sadly, some of the political and media players before the referendum and since have given licence to the ugly rise in hate crime, racism and xenophobia. The VCS must challenge and oppose these whenever they appear. Such toxicity has no place in our society, and we should say so.
Nevertheless, we cannot pretend that structural inequalities, the impact of more than eight years of austerity, welfare reforms accompanied by near demonisation of those in poverty and similar policies have had no toll on society, social cohesion and fairness. Our sector has to speak up and speak out as well as offer services to mitigate the impact of harsh policies and structural issues. For example, food banks are essential, unfortunately, but so is campaigning for reform or abolition of universal credit.
This takes me back to Brexit. The VCS must avoid being partisan, but it can use the European elections, the next stages of the domestic Brexit debate and a possible "people’s vote" to:
- Speak up for the interests of our beneficiaries and communities – and, most importantly, enable them to have their voices heard;
- Challenge any Brexit deal that would weaken the economy and consequentially bring more social damage, and any deal that makes the country weaker and poorer than we are with EU membership;
- Identify areas for EU reform, especially in areas such as social policy;
- Argue that, should Brexit occur, citizen and employee rights, environmental protection and funding must be protected and continued, or even enhanced;
- Recognise the case for two-way free movement of people and its benefits for public sector and VCS services, and for UK citizens wishing to live, study and work across the EU;
- Challenge and offer policy proposals to address structural and systematic inequalities;
- Oppose all forms of hatred, racism and xenophobia.
The core message must be that the VCS and wider civil society must not stand aside from the Brexit debate. It should engage, and it should be fearless when it does so.
John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and chair of Navca