Get on the good foot

I was fortunate to be at a roundtable discussion earlier this week at which MPs Stella Creasy and (briefly) Stephen Doughty shared some thoughts about being lobbied and engaged in campaigns, opening up a discussion with a diverse group of campaigners from across the sector.

The way it was described, for an MP, being the target of so much campaigning is life in the mosh pit. There’s no opportunity for an elegant dance around the issues, instead you are surrounded by a cacophany of campaigning noise, as hundreds of emails pile in on top of one another.  

The result can be a kind of mass-email-blindness. The logic of mobilising mass support – to raise the issue up the agenda, and demonstrate widespread concern in ways that rebalance targets’ incentives to act – gets lost as the numbers ratchet up, with different causes creating sound wave interference, cancelling each other out.

One key underlying reason for this is an asymmetry in capacity. Campaigning organisations can increasingly exploit digital opportunities to mobilise huge numbers across all sorts of issues. MPs simply don’t have the technology or resources to cope with these kinds of bombardments.

But at the same time that campaigning is becoming too sophisticated for MPs to cope, it’s sometimes still not sophisticated enough.

The sense of noise is compounded by scattergun targeting, by campaigns going for blanket coverage without taking into account individual MPs’ interests, prior positions, opportunity to influence, etc. Meanwhile, MPs who are members of a particular Bill Committee or relevant Select Committee feel under-utilised. The curse of vague asks also surfaced.

At a more fundamental level, the discussion danced a little bit around the handbag of the democratic form and how best to create social change.

As was emphasised, we need to be careful not to under-value activism, and individual acts, however small. These can represent first steps towards deeper political engagement, as well as being important in themselves, as routes of individual and collective empowerment.

But one critique from the MPs’ side was essentially that campaign approaches – as they see/experience them – are typically, and unhelpfully, predicated on a linear model of influence that doesn’t always reflect the reality:

Organisation mobilises constituent. Constituent raises issue. MP acts.

Campaigning based on this kind of model of representative democracy can come with the risk that NGOs are inserting themselves as players within a wider democratic malaise – making calls on targets that they are unable to respond to meaningfully. This applies to MPs, who may not have the power or the time, but arguably more widely too.

And that’s not great for the campaigns, or the supporters. If (potential) activists are taking ineffectual action, then arguably that can be more counter-productive than empowering.

We were encouraged to think more in terms of social change as occurring through dialogue, campaigning as more of a tango than an exercise in one-way targeting, as part of a shifting balance of when look to leaders, when to look to communities and ourselves.

Hence the stress on local community-based action, people finding solutions in their own hands, working to create change in tandem with those who have more, or different, influence. And the importance of personal (face to face) communications as part of this.

Over the years – as a campaigner and doing evaluations of campaigns – I’ve heard targets enough times suggesting that they are not the really the campaign targets and/or are being inappropriately targeted.

But this was a session with MPs who are (a) campaigners themselves, and (b) very clearly well-wishers, giving up precious time to try and kick start efforts to find more effective ways of working. And so this feedback comes with the weight and momentum of a 7lb cheese rolling illicitly down Cooper’s Hill.

The points I’m making are generalisations but also noticeably very similar to conclusions in Peering In, for example, which looked at how members of the House of Lords experience and respond to lobbying and campaigning.

Of course, much of this is not new. Emails about badgers are clogging up the system in the same way that a while back it was foxes and fox hunting dominating MPs’ in-boxes. And someone made the point at the session that emails are the new postcards.

But as digital campaigning continues to develop, they would seem to be concerns that are becoming both more acute and (in theory at least) more easily solveable.

3 Comments

  1. Jeremy says:

    I accept the point that MPs should not be targeted to do things beyond their control and can see that the cacophony of NGO campaigns oculd be cumulatively unhelpful, but, with these caveats, the logic of “Organisation mobilises constituent. Constituent raises issue. MP acts” still seems to me the right one – and one which can survive the criticism about an overly-linear understanding of campaigning and influencing. If MPs are approached by a constituent, they must act, either to act in line with the constituent’s request or to respond to them why they will not. This is their job and the only basis of their legitimacy.

    And anyway, how can a cheese roll illicitly down a hill?

    • Jim says:

      That’s fine in principle but in a world of limited and not-fit-for-purpose resources, as the volume of campaign-generated emails grows, then it becomes increasingly a zero sum game for the MP. Time spent responding to campaign-generated emails diverts attention away from vital casework, for example, just when needs are increasing and other avenues of support are being demolished.

      For more information on the cheese side of it, see
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-22639675

      • Mark Luetchford says:

        As the proud roller outer of Oxfam’s constituency contact strategy I will still defend its utility as a campaign methodology. that’s the tango rather than ballroom blitz. successful mass targetting shows weight of support – does that reflect justness of cause. Can be part of an orchestrated multifaceted campaign.

        used to live in Gloucester – and buy our cheese of diana smart, who as well as supplying illicit cheese, who used to also deal in unpasteurised milk. a bit of a rebel but a bizarre cultural tradition that ranks alongside sussex bonfire as rooted in the local community but is less problematic in that they don’t burn catholics in effigy in Gloucester.

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