As lockdown eases, our Head of Public Affairs, Simon Collingwood, takes stock of where we are and where we are heading next
I return to work today on the heels of a month welcoming and getting to know our twins who joined us at the beginning of May. It has been a fantastic experience; the babies thrive while us parents have tried to survive in one piece.
Through this period I tried to cut out social media. To live in the moment; to curtail the time I normally lose to vacant perusal on LinkedIn or Twitter. I was moderately successful. In my hibernation, I found space for a little reflective pondering about our clients and the work we are doing to support their national or regional political engagement.
There are a lot of hot takes out there about how COVID19 will alter us and forge fresh pathways. My feeling is that it will leave an indelible mark on us, much like other global and national cataclysmic events have. I am less clear about the scale, permanence and reach for ourselves, places and sectors. I try to maintain a hard-headed realism around future gazings, particularly at the global level as we enter an unpredictable series of key national elections and other shaping stress points.
As public affairs practitioners, I think we have to be a little more directive with our interpretations of the Government, policy detail and how and when to engage. This is going to be a tumultuous time, impacting across all regions and parts of our society. Little will be left untouched.
A few key points stand out for me:
This is a Government light on detail and at the same time has an unshakeable rigidity around key ideological plinths. Outside of the plinths, there is scope for discussion and dialogue; during the COVID19 pandemic at MHCLG we have seen pragmatism around planning regimes as local authorities have found ways to administer cases within the guidelines. An absence of detail also means that it can be pushed around by an effective opposition. This highlights the important role of the Opposition to influence, but equally Select Committees, Metro Mayors, Devolved Administrations and effective backbenchers to help shape future policy positions.
This Government has yet to demonstrate an effective mechanism for meaningful business engagement, particularly on the areas it holds as sacrosanct – noting Brexit. Elsewhere in Parliament and at regional / local level, we have been impressed by how many members have been hugely engaged on a whole range of matters relevant to our clients.
The primacy of the economy. Steering a healthy and regionally balanced economic recovery will be the vital component for this Government against which it will be judged at the next election. As such, all efforts to influence will need to take account of this. Infrastructure will play a key role, as will the importance of regionalism. The order of priorities, effectiveness of interventions and speed will be the areas to watch. This Government has yet to hold firm on spending restraint. In contrast to our former Conservative Government’s austerity has gone.
Other vital areas such as Net Zero will unlikely be a priority beyond name and platitudes; long gone are the days when Ed Miliband as then Secretary of State at DECC was a vital global campaigner at the vanguard of this vital issue. That said, we will see strong support for the investment in low carbon energy generation, building on globally significant capability in this space in all parts of the country.
These are the points that stand out for me. There are a number of live areas which we will be monitoring closely whether on higher education, renewables, agriculture and devolution. Across all the toolkit for us as professionals remains the same:
Understand the political context and key players.
Build your narrative and underpinning evidence base. Be creative.
Keep your relationships close.
It will be a busy return to work. I’d love to hear from you on the above or whether you would like to talk about your organisation.
3 June 2020 | Simon Collingwood