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.