Lobbying for change: How Covid-19 is transforming political engagement

What can we learn about the new post-COVID-19 language and policy landscape and how does this affect how organisations lobby? COVID-19 has created huge changes to our society and perspective. It is creating a wider debate about what kind of future Britain wants, but it also leaves less scope for debate about the smaller changes that many have been lobbying for. Is Britain now ready for a great debate about societal shifts? Ross Laird, Head of Grayling Scotland, shares his thoughts.

Time to think big?

COVID-19 has created transformational change. Public services have been reshaped. Consumer habits have changed. The landscape has changed. Many are predicting our high streets will never be quite the same. Is it time to repurpose empty retail units and rethink our town centres? Others are calling for a more fundamental shift in the provision of education and health services. The NHS Confederation is calling for reshaping the delivery of NHS services, which adopts a much wider, partnership approach. Colleges are calling for a fundamental shift in the way we deliver skills and training to one which is much more agile and resilient. More fundamentally, the Social Market Foundation report ‘Bounce Back Britain’ has called for a new “Contract with Britain” investment strategy and reform of company law. In a competitive policy environment, everyone is suddenly looking for transformational change, but government isn’t in a position to sanction huge changes all at once. What it will be interested in, however, are innovative coal-face solutions that can help transform service delivery.

Social change – the great debate

Is Britain now ready for a societal shift? Many are calling for a renewed focus on social value generated by business. Predictably, there are calls from politicians and organisations for a Universal Basic Income. Local voluntarism and community activity have received a significant boost; how can we capitalise on that? The UK Government was already focussed on ‘levelling-up’, but we have now been drawn into a wider debate about inequalities, not least fuelled by the recent Black Lives Matter campaign. And then there is the challenge and opportunity of climate change – a chance to pursue the zero-carbon future at a faster pace. These are likely to become the major points of argument and with devolved and regional elections next year, could become critical touchpoints. Expect new faces and voices to emerge as we look for answers.

It’s about money, not regulation

First and foremost, money and cash-flow are more critical to business survival right now than the regulatory environment. Therefore, the focus, whether you are in the public, private or voluntary sector, is funding and easing loan repayment schemes. British retailers are calling for a short-term reduction in VAT or a temporary income tax cut for lower-income workers. The Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland is seeking targeted hardship grants to businesses and creating local micro-finance top-up schemes among other proposals. Meanwhile, colleges and universities are forecasting huge budget deficits. Health organisations are calling for an extension to emergency health funding. It all comes down to money at a time when public deficits are spiralling, meaning further major cash injections without a clear return on investment are unlikely.

Digital and skills uplift

All sectors recognise the importance of digital connectivity. Where some sectors were slow to adopt digital change, there is now a renewed focus on supporting the digital transformation. Upskilling and re-skilling have become significant issues. Calls are being made for a ‘Reskilling for the Recovery Fund’ in London to help those in the hardest hit sectors retrain. Skill providers are well-placed to provide the courses and support required. While many in government will welcome the digital switch, who should fund these changes and to what degree?

Governments are painfully aware of these major changes and remain committed to the big ticket items of greater equality and climate change but have the day to day job of government and maintaining services. It’s unlikely to have the bandwidth to deal with wider change, so it is up to lobbyists and influencers to demonstrate how smaller changes now can capitalise on the desire for change and to set out a clear roadmap –ideally working with the grain of government. At a time when every sector wants a voice and finance, lobby groups are going to have to be more innovative in their approach to government and work in partnership.