How should campaigners prepare for a Labour Government?

Assuming a catastrophic polling failure doesn’t happen, tomorrow Sir Keir Starmer is going to be the next Prime Minister, and Labour is going to form the next Government with a significant majority – so like lots of changemakers I’ve been thinking about what that means for engaging with the next Government, especially given it’s the first time in 14 years.

Here are a few key reflections I’ve got about how to approach that:

Access does not equal influence – it can be easy to think that being invited to be part of a conversation, roundtable or consultation means that you’ve got influence, but as I remember from a very old NCVO campaigning guide I read back when I started my campaigning work – access does not equal influence.

Indeed consultations and roundtable can often be processes designed to keep stakeholder ‘busy’. Of course, being in the room and the conversation is a great starting point, but it’s dangerous to think that just because you’re ‘in the room’.

As we approach a new government, changemakers are going to have to show what they bring to the conversation – a constituency of support (that can be mobilised), expertise, policy ideas, or something else – rather than just assume ‘being a charity’ means you’ll be invited into the room.

With a significant majority, it’s time to remember that like any political party, there are groups and factions within the Labour Party – as this article suggests, the challenges for Labour could come from within the party as much as from the opposition. So spend some time reading about Labour’s founding and right from the start it’s been a party that has drawn a range of different intellectual traditions together.

That continues up until today – with different factions and tribes within the Labour Party having different levels of influence and roles to play within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

It’s really worth the investment of time understanding them – and thus how decisions on how you engage with MPs who align with different parts of the Parliamentary Labour Party will inform how your approach is viewed.

Pay attention to the post-election narratives that emerge – for the last few years countless articles have been written about the ‘Red Wall’ and how it was the key battleground for future election. What voters in the Red Wall think has shaped the political decisions of the last 5 years – and the same will happen after this election.

Narratives will emerge about what was behind the result and what it means for the decisions that a new Government can make. Some organisations are able to try to shape and influence those narratives – others aren’t, but being aware of them, and what that will mean for the political landscape of the next 5 years.

Give new MPs some space – looking back at this post from 2011 I’m reminded of this one – where Dominic Raab (whatever happened to him)  complained about being overwhelmed with messages from constituents.

He was at the extreme end of what was happening, but it’s a useful reminder than for many MPs they’re going to spend the first few weeks of the new Parliament getting offices set up, working out how to navigate around Parliament literally and figuratively, and pick up casework from their predecessors – while at the same time being exhausted from 6 weeks of campaigning.

Giving them a little space before you lunch into your pitch might actually yield better results.

Keep calm and make friends – if Labour gets a significant majority, then there are likely to be a significant number of MPs without any formal roles in Parliament (for example on Select Committees) or within Government.

Many will be wanting to ‘tow the line’ until the first reshuffle happens – in the hope that they’ll be viewed favorably for promotion. That will all change after that reshuffle has happened as the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but even before then it’s also a great opportunity to work with new MPs who are interested in the issues you’re working on.

Don’t overlook the opposition – it’d be easy to go ‘all in on Labour’ with any influencing strategy at the moment given the likelihood of a sizeable majority, but as retiring Green MP, Caroline Lucas, reflected in this lecture last month, there is still lots a loan MP can do using the Parliamentary processes that exist.

And that will be true for the opposition parties as well – if the Lib Dems pick up seats what are the opportunities to work with them on getting issues discussed and debated, and even if the Conservatives spend the next 12 months having a argument about the direction they want to go in, are their individual MPs you can look to work with.

How to follow the General Election as a curious campaigner

With the election campaign in full swing, here are some thoughts on how can you take a step back to follow the election as a curious campaigner – rather than get swept up with the latest ‘hot takes’.

I LOVE elections!

So since the General Election was called I’ve spent way too much time scrolling through Twitter/X, listening to the latest podcast and gossiping away on WhatsApp.

But with the campaigns in full swing, here are some thoughts on how to follow the election as a curious campaigner.

1 – Get beyond the ‘what’s happened’ analysis – there are some brilliant people getting under the skin of the election campaign to help unpack the tactics and approaches that the parties are using, as there are lots of interesting ideas for campaigners to take.

I’ve especially been enjoying ex-Labour adviser Dr Nick Bowes daily updates on LinkedIn, Benedict Pringle who’s been taking a deep dive at the advertising strategies of the parties, Aggie Chambre on the Politico Westminster Insider podcast and Tom Hamilton’s excellent Substack ‘Dividing Lines’ on the art of political attack.

2 – Follow the election on a different platform – The parties are all investing huge amounts of money and time in digital campaign, so it’s been interesting to dive onto some less familiar social media platforms to see how the parties are approaching different audiences.

What you see on Facebook is very different from what you’ll get on Instagram – and there full of creative and innovative ideas about how to communicate your message. I thought this was good on the approach the parties are taking on TikTok.

3 – Jump into listen to a Focus Group – amongst the pollsters I find that More in Common consistently share some of the most interesting polling insight (and not just on the way your biscuit preference informs your vote).

They’ve got a great series of deep dives looking at the polling on different issues, but they’ve also launched Focus Groups Live – which is bringing the views of focus groups, that are often only accessible to those who fund them to everyone. A great way to listen to what others are thinking. I’d also recommend The Times Radio Focus Groups.

And if you want the ultimate Focus Group then I’d strongly encourage you to pick a party or candidate you want to support and go knock on some doors for them to see what voters are really thinking.

4 – Pick some different constituency races and follow from your laptop – depending on where you live, you might be getting fed up of hearing from the parties who are competing for your vote, or if you live in a safe seat feeling like you’ve been totally overlooked.

But thanks to internet you can do that from the comfort of your sofa – so pick some races that are different to where you live, follow the candidates on social media, see what they’re serving up on the Facebook Ad Library and set up Google News alerts to get a sense of how the parties are approaching winning over voters in very different parts of the country.

The team at Democracy Club also have Election Leaflets. Don’t have time to do that, then I’d recommend Who Targets Me for getting more on what the parties are doing.

5- Watch the news with the sound off – this was one my top takeaways from this Institute of Government discussion on communication strategies at the election – the point being that many people are watching the news on TV while trying to feed the kids, get the washing in, or rush out to the gym, and often with the sound off.

So the pictures and visuals matter as much as the words. A good reminder that as campaigners that it’s not all about the policy narrative – and often about the images that are linked with your campaign.

Getting Ahead of the Curve – 6 Considerations for Campaigners ahead of the next UK General Election

I spend a lot of time thinking about the Labour Party – my wife would suggest at times it’s been way too much time!

But as we’re now around 18 months out from the last possible date for a General Election, and with Labour holding a solid lead in opinion polls, it’s something that I’ve started to think about more and more in my campaigning work.

As I’ve thought about it, I’ve considered some areas that campaigners need to consider in their approach.

1. Too much focus on policy as opposed to politics – it’s very easy for campaigners and changemakers to spend lots of energy focusing on a list of what they’d like to see a future government do on their issue.

Of course, you need to engage in a process to try to influence manifestos, but that needs to be done with a focused look at the politics of the election.

The Labour leadership has a clear sense of what they think they need to do to win the election: the constituencies, voters, and issues that are going to matter. So any thinking about policies needs to be ruthlessly considered through that political lens.

Right now, Labour is focused on demonstrating economic credibility in its approach and appears to have an interest in pursuing a similar ‘small shield’ strategy with a narrow focus on a few issues and pledges running up to the election, like the approach taken by the Australian Labor Party in 2022.

But beyond that, they’re certainly doing more polling than you are about what matters to voters. So ensuring that you spend time understanding what matters to those key voters that Labour needs and how your ask might fit is vital.

I try to keep on top of this on my semi-regular polling threads over on Twitter, but at the very least, I’d recommend a regular review of the monthly issues tracking data from Ipsos and More in Common.

2. Assuming it’ll be easy to influence policy under a Labour government – It’s been 13+ years since we had a Labour government, so there are fewer campaigners around who’ll remember what it was like. It was early in my career, and I think I’d characterize it as ‘easier but certainly not easy’

Now admittedly, on lots of issues, the starting point for influencing will be more favorable, so getting a meeting or finding a sympathetic backbench government MP to push your cause might be easier.

But the economic conditions that the next Government is going to inherit will lead to tough choices. Those campaigners who can offer policy ideas that don’t require significant funding are likely to find a warmer reception.

Any changemaker approaching the next year with a ‘fingers crossed’ strategy – hoping that if Labour wins, they’ll do the right thing on their issue – is, in my view, making a mistake.

Any incoming government is going to find itself in a tight spot economically, with potentially limited bandwidth to do much else.

3. That today’s Labour is the same as it was in 1997, 2015, or 2019 – From the outside, Labour might look like one large happy political family, but like any political party, it’s really a group of different factions, groups, and viewpoints who are working with each other – sometimes together and sometimes against each other.

While the formal policy-making processes of the party are largely the same as they have been at previous elections – with the National Policy Forum process currently ongoing ahead of the conference in the autumn and the formal ‘Clause V’ meeting once the election is called to approve the manifesto.

Beyond that, this is a new edition of the Labour Party with a new leader and new individuals influencing him. So spending time understanding which groups/factions are growing in influence, and which aren’t, matters as it’ll give you key insight.

You can draw some of this from the background of the candidates getting selected (I’d recommend the Tomorrow’s MP Twitter feed), the announcements that are being made from the leader of the opposition office as they’re the ones that are approved and ‘on the grid’ (the media planning process that political parties use), and who is advising key ministers – see here for one example of a briefing from a public affairs agency which provides some of that.

So while some of the individuals might have been involved in previous editions of the Labour Party, and there might be parallels with previous elections that Labour has fought – campaigners need to start with a blank piece of paper when it comes to power mapping.

4. That your reputational shadow will be enough – I’m a huge fan of the writing of David Karpf, and I especially like the concept of the ‘reputational shadow’ that he writes about – the sense that politicians judge your influence based on their past experiences of the constituency of support for your issue that you’ve been able to demonstrate.

As we know, the Labour leadership will be doing a huge amount of polling at the moment, so they know where the public, especially those they hope will vote for them, stand on issues.

Campaigns need to be careful not to assume that previously mobilised support for an issue still exists and is seen as influential.

Some groups, especially the trade union movement, which is a constituent part of the Labour Party (they’re literally part of the family), will always be central to thinking when decisions on policy and approach are being made. But the views and concerns of other sectors and groups will only be there if they are seen to be important to an influential part of the electorate.

5. The election is a foregone conclusion – Sure, the polls currently point to a sizeable win for the Labour Party, and it’s right to plan with that as the most likely outcome.

But, if we look at polls taken at this moment ahead of both the 2010 and 2015 elections, we’ll find leads that didn’t translate into the final result on election day. For example, 18 months out from May 2010, David Cameron’s Conservatives had a +6/8% lead, and the result was a coalition government.

Now, lots has changed since those elections, and the circumstances will be different. But campaigners need to constantly evaluate what’s happening and adapt their plans and approach, including engaging with smaller parties who could become important if the polls narrow and a hung Parliament looks like a potential outcome.

6. Overlooking the Conservative Party – Not only will they be the party of Government until the election which could still be over a year away – and could plausibly win the next General Election – but they will also be one of the major political forces in the UK for years to come.

So while it might be tempting to pause or stop engagement with the Conservative Party, that feels like a mistake, especially if a period after an election defeat leads to some very public discussions about the direction of the party.

Smart mapping of who is likely to be influential in the future leadership of the Conservative Party and ongoing engagement needs to continue.

ChatGPT: A Revolutionary Tool for Political Communication and Influence?

It’s almost becoming a cliché, but it seems that you need to start any post on ChatGPT or another similar A.I (Artificial Intelligence) tool by sharing what it has suggested you should say!

I’ve not done that, although there is one part of this blog that has been informed by using the tool – more on that below.

I’m not going to lie – I’m a little freaked out when thinking about what new A.I. tools will mean for us, but as David Karpf said in this really helpful seminar on the implications of ChatGPT for political campaigning, this is potentially one of the most game-changing technologies that we’ve seen in campaigning in the last decade so it’s not something that you can just pretend to ignore.

So what does it mean for campaigners?

Here are 5 quick thoughts from a brief exploration of ChatGPT;

  1. It’s not going to take our jobs for now – I love this article from Future Advocacy which looks at how ChatGPT performs when presented with regular activities that will come across the desk of a campaigner.

    It’s quite clear that the tool currently isn’t able to replicate the insight and knowledge that comes from a curiosity about how change happens which is the key to being a successful campaigner.

    For example, it’s not able to pick up on the nuance and subtlety that is often needed in the development of campaign strategies. And because it uses the information that it’s been fed with, it’s not able to come with innovation or novel approach – ask it to develop a campaign strategy and it’ll share a range of ideas you’d probably think about – although it’ll do that in second not hours.

    And when it comes to messaging – it’s rather good at producing cliches, but those can quickly demonstrate a lack of authenticity that’s often needed for communications to cut through.

    It has some clear limitations – for now.
  2. But it could certainly help in automating some processes for campaigners – there are probably a whole set of regular tasks where it could be helpful for campaigners.

    Think about the challenge that some MPs have with campaigners producing the same pro-forma campaign email to them – could ChatGPT help to take information from a constituent and then produce a unique email response? (see this from Rally who tried just that).

    Or the optimisation of adverts on social media platforms – it’s very easy to see how ChatGPT could help to produce different advert copy that could accelerate the optimisation process.

    Or could ChatGPT be used to help in filtering and replying to responses to submissions to survey, applications for volunteer roles, or grant applications?

  3. And that raises some important discussions about ethics that need to happen – this is a whole post in itself – about the inherent bias in the tool, the transparency of the outputs, and the motivates of those behind ChatGPT, but practically this is a conversation that is already emerging in the publishing industry where publishers are starting to be clear where they are and aren’t going to be using ChatGPT.

    Campaigners are also going to need to be clear about how they’re using ChatGPT and be transparent about that with those they’re sharing the outputs with. As I said above, this article is all my own work, but I did ask ChatGPT for some help on the title of the blog.

  4. This is where it probably is useful for now – as a starting point for research or ideas – as a tool it can be great as a starting point if you’re stuck and looking for ideas – like brainstorming title for a blog post, or an email subject line, or providing the initial outline of what you might want to include in a briefing note, or summarising an existing policy report or debate in Parliament, or helping you to organise a complex data set – the outputs might not be perfect, and certainly need a human to look over the output, but it’s a powerful tool to help to get you started.

  5. And it’s certainly going to fuel misinformation and disinformation – everyone has access to A.I tool, and it’s almost certainly the case that it’s already being used to pursue disinformation – see this for some examples of how it’s already being used in the US. If this is what the tools are able to develop and generate in just 6 months, so it’s likely that as it becomes more ‘smart’ that – for example, it’s already the case that A.I can take audio of someone speaking and turn it into a speech generator which you can program – so you can imagine the rise of deep fakes of politican supposedly saying something they’ve never said.

    That’s going to raise some important challenges for campaigners which we can’t just ignore – about how you both deal with the effects of disinformation campaigns but also help to encourage critical thinking, and support activities that help to counter polarisation in society.

How to – commission polling for your campaign

I’m seeing more and more campaigners turn to opinion polling as a tactic – and having recently been involved in commissioning some polling, I thought it’d be useful to share a few lessons that I’ve picked up;

1. Start by being clear on what you’re looking to achieve from your polling – ask yourself is it polling ‘to know’ or ‘to show’?

Polling to know is about giving you and your organisation insight and information for the campaigning you are doing, it might be used to inform your strategy or approach, but it might not be something you want to make public.

Polling to show is when it’s designed to demonstrate to your target audience (that could be a decision maker, supporters or the wider public) something that you want them to know about public opinion on a specific issue – this is probably something you’re going to look to put out in a press release or briefing.

2. Decide on the type of polling you want to do – there are different approaches, and they all have different timescales to them. The most common polling that you see is based on a nationally representative sample of the UK public – basically, the pollster you work with will get the views of around 1,000 people to make up a sample that reflects the population of the UK – normally these can be turned around in a few days as most pollsters have weekly polls they can drop them into – where their panels respond to questions on a whole range of topics.

You can also look to use the same approach but ask to focus on a particular region of the UK (as a national representative sample probably won’t give you a sample size big enough to be statistically significant for most specific regions or nations) or a group (for example previous Conservative voters) – generally the more complicated the sample you’re looking for the longer and more expensive it can get.

Increasingly some organisations are using MRP (Multilevel regression and post-stratification) polling, which is a more complex approach, which seeks to sample a large group, and then uses statistical analysis of that plus insight from the census to provide estimates of opinions and attitudes for geographical areas, like a constituency – it’s a great way of getting more detailed insight, and 38 Degrees are the example of an organisation who use it powerfully for campaigning, but it’s much more expensive and takes longer (weeks not days) – so potentially good for planned work but less useful if you’re looking for something quickly.

3. Decide how you’re going to share the results from the start – as you start to think about polling bring together all those who will be involved in sharing the findings together. If you’re looking to get media coverage from your polling, you want to be getting media colleagues involved to think about the media line you might be looking for – and also what else has been in the media recently.

You can also think about using results in MP briefing – especially useful if you can provide details by constituency or region, and there is lots you can do – especially if you can find interesting ways of bringing the findings to life.

Deciding on your approach before you commission – can help you think what you’re looking for in the questions you ask. Also, talk with whomever you’re commissioning the polling from to see if they’ll be happy to share the findings on their channels as well – it might be a good way of getting the results out to a wider audience.

One thing that I think charities could look to do more of is to repeat their polling over a period of time – for example, looking to ask the same questions every 6 or 12 months to see how much the political landscape is changing– it’s obviously a commitment in resource, but could be an interesting approach.

4. Who to work with – there are lots of companies that will offer to do polling for you, but some have better reputations than others. If you’re looking for polling that is going to be used in more political work, then start by looking at working with a polling company that regularly publishes polls on voting intention as they’re likely to have better name recognition with your targets – looking for a member of the British Polling Council is probably a good place to start.

Every polling company charges differently but expect to put aside at least a few £100s for each question you want to ask – and it’s often the case you’ll want to ask more than one, and as mentioned earlier more complexity = more cost, but often more interesting results.

Expect to get a spreadsheet with the results, including breaking them down by different demographics, and sometimes previous voting intention from your pollster. While these breakdowns can be interesting – be careful not to over-interpret small sample sizes.

5. Coming up with the questions – there is an art to writing great polling questions – and for your polling to have credibility it’s important to try to avoid bias or opinion in them that leads to a particular result.

The polling company you work with will be able to advise you on how to approach this but also get the insight or information you’re looking for. I’d also recommend running the question by someone who isn’t as close to the subject as you are – to get a sense of it it’s understandable to someone without expert knowledge of a topic.

And a note to caution, the reality is that if you’re asking on something very specific it might be that you get lots of ‘don’t know’ answers.

Some campaigns lessons to close out 2022

For the last few months, I’ve had a growing pile of books by my desk, all of which have sparked a half-written blog post in my head, but as the year comes to an end I’ve decided that’s unlikely to happen, and so to put them into one blog with some of the key learnings I’m taking away from them.

Prisms of the People, authored by Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa, is a cracking read which came out at the end of 2021. Much of what I find helpful is how it’s been super helpful in sharpening my thinking and approach to how we understand power. Linked to the book being published was this really useful paper and these 4 principles which I’ve been trying to reflect on during the year;

  1. Power is dynamic – too often we think about power as static, that an organisation or movement has it or doesn’t have it, but it’s so much more complex than that. It’s about the interactional relationship between (at least) two political actors.
  2. Resources do not equal power – sure it can help, but just because you have a big mailing list doesn’t mean you have power. Simply amassing one resource will not automatically lead to power. Movement building is the work of the process
  3. There is a difference between potential power – the resources organisations need to be ready to exert power in the world when the opportunity comes, and the exercise of power – the actual things your organisation does to exert its power in the world (win elections, pass policies, turnout activists).
  4. Power is like an iceberg – after Steven Lukes it has at least 3 faces (visible, hidden, and invisable). You can only see the tip of the iceberg (the visible power) but much of it remains submerged underwater (‘hidden’ power). Too often as activists, we just think about the visible power, but ignore the other faces of power.

Reflecting more on power, I also enjoyed Power for All by Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro, it’s a wide-ranging, but very accessible read that acts as a primer to how power can be harnessed to make positive changes in our lives, work, and societies – I found the chapter on power in movements really interesting, and especially the research by Julie on how every successful social movement requires three distinct leadership roles: the agitator, the innovator, and the orchestrator.

As the authors write in this paper, a movement needs those threes roles to work together with the;

  • Agitator stirring the pot by articulating and publicising grievances, rallying an otherwise diverse group of people around a mutual desire for change
  • the Innovator developing solution to address the grievances – and helping to justify those alternatives in appealing ways to engage individuals, groups, and organizations to support them
  • finally the Orchestrator spreads the solution created by the innovator, thinking how best to reach and work with people both within and outside the movement.

    The chapter also picks up on the need that most changes come about through the long and hard work of movement building, something that isn’t necessarily glamorous or that gets much attention but is required for sustained action.

On that theme, Gal Beckerman’s book, The Quiet Before, is a really interesting and thorough look at the important work of how ideas and movements are incubated and grow often initially unnoticed.

Drawing on a range of examples from across the world and history Beckerman draws out on the importance of that quiet and unnoticed work that happens in the incubation stage of a movement before, reflecting on the challenge that our social media-driven culture means that we often move immediately to the ‘trigger’ without the work of building a shared movement identity which means it can be hard to sustain beyond an initial moment of outrage.

Tracing movements like Chartists in the 1800s to the democracy movement in Russia to Black Lives Matter, Beckerman looks at how the pre-digital forms that often required individuals to spend time writing down and honing messages, discussing and debating ideas, refining ideas and arguments, and building a sense of shared identity.

And while we can’t go back to that– as we end the year with the future of Twitter looking uncertain, there is a truth in examples from the book on in the importance of that slower work of building our networks for change, and appropriate response to this challenge from Bill Mckibben that ‘we’ve almost certainly relied too much on Twitter ….posting has become a substitute for other kinds of action…it’s given us less incentive to build out real and substantial networks’.

It was David Karf’s post on rethinking political innovation, that pointed me in the direction of The Innovation Delusion by Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell – not everything in the book was relevant, but its central message that we’ve become obsessed with labeling everything as innovation and always looking for new when actually we should also be focusing more of our work and efforts on maintenance.

I know how much I can be drawn to celebrating or searching for the ‘new’ when it’s as important to focus on maintaining what is already there. The book offers a useful set of principles for a maintenance mindset – that it can sustain success as when done well it can ensure longevity and sustainability, that doing so depends on culture and management – a good challenge that we need to celebrate those heroes who as much as we praise those who we see as innovators, and maintenance requires constant care (and time put aside for that).

Books that give an insight into what really happens inside the institutions, and Jess PhilipsThe Life of an MP, is funny, and a contemporary example of just that. It’s a truthful, and engaging look at how MPs have to juggle their constituency and casework, with a push for progress on other interests they have or causes they support.

Of course, the way every MP works is different, but Philips does an excellent job at presenting honestly the reality of that balance and providing some useful tips and advice to any campaigner. Lots of books about contemporary politics can be interesting reads, but they are about what’s happened and how what, this is a little different as it’s much more about what’s happening on a daily basis for an MP.

My final book is Producing Politics by Daniel Laurison, it’s a sociological look at what happens inside US political campaigns and the reality that most decisions are made by a small group of individuals who move from one campaign to another. Given the site of study is the US political system which is very different from the UK, not all of it is relevant (although it’s an interesting read if like me you are a bit obsessed with US politics) but a few reflections from the book stood out for me and I think do translate more widely. 

The observation that much of what happens within campaigns isn’t driven by data and evidence but by ‘follow handed down by one campaign to the next’, that campaigns should be sites where there is lots of engagement with the public but too much time is spent with others who share – a challenge to get out more, and that too little time is spent building deep and meaningful engagement despite the evidence that it can have the most transformative impact on the outcomes all resonated with me.

How to – organise a campaign stunt

It’s been a while since I organised a campaign stunt, but after putting 100s of shoes out in Trafalgar Square to highlight the ongoing hunger crisis in East Africa.

Following it I did a bit of a learning session with my team on running great campaign stunts, and wanted to share some of my lessons here – it’s very much from the perspective of making these happen within charities, but hopefully it’s useful.

Campaign stunts can be really varied – but being really clear on what you’re looking to achieve from the activity is critical to good planning.

Are you looking for media coverage, to generate content to share on social media, to engage a political targets (like getting MPs to come out and join you), to bear witness to an issue that’s happening, or to engage the public.

Whatever you decide to do, simplicity is the key – introducing too many elements into a stunt can often make an image. So come up with a simple idea that you’re looking to deliver.

When you’ve decided on what you’re looking to do it’s time to start to think about the location for your stunt.

Most public spaces require you to get permission to formally use them – that can be from the local authority or the landowner, although increasingly many public spaces are privately owned and that makes doing some activities harder.

Sometimes you might decide that your stunt is going to be small or happen quickly so you’ll decide not to ask for permission, or asking for permission will prevent it from happening so you can plan to go ahead without it, but that’ll be an organisational decision.

If you’re looking for your event to happen in and around Parliament then you’ve got a few options, most of which need to have permission requested 14 days in advance – Parliament Square and Trafalgar Square are both under auspice of the Greater London Authority, Victoria Tower Gardens (the space south of Parliament) is under the Royal Parks (who are often hard to work with) and there are various spaces on the Parliament estate which you can also look to hold an stunt on.

It’s certainly my experience that given the level of security around Parliament its hard to do much without permission, but it’s often easier when you move away from higher profile locations – almost all spaces have conditions on what you can and can’t do, including when you can do something. Generally they like stunts to happen at quieter times of the day – so expect an early start!

If you’re looking for props for your stunt I’d recommend getting in touch with a theatre set designer – they’re excellent at turning your vision into something that can be used – remember they have to build props that are durable but can get on and off stage quickly.

However it’s often it’s a case of needing to get out and source the materials you need – for example recently needing 2000 pairs of shoes for a stunt required getting on the phone to second-hand clothing wholesalers – basically Google is your friend.

Do think about the sustainability of your materials and what you’re going to do with them after the stunt – including where your going to store them. Invariably organisational finance process can slow down getting props commissioned or items– so if you think you’ll be likely to do this perhaps start to source a supplier ahead of time

While a picture can tell a thousand words, having some banners or signs at your stunt can be helpful. Generally I’ve got these printed by a local printer who can turn things around within 24 hours or so (at Save the Children we use ABC Imaging as they’re close to our office).

If you’re looking for banners think about the size and material you want to make from them – explore material banners which are better for the environment or make your own from sheets. Signs can be held by participants – and often best if printed on foamboard as they are a little more rigid and have better waterproof qualities. Most of the time I’ve found a printer will take a high-res pdf version to print, but check requirements.

As part of your planning you’ll want to think about the staff that you’ll need at your stunt – they probably fall into 3 groups;

  • Those needed to make the stunt happen who will be focused on logistics and delivery of the stunt. Appoint someone as the stunt lead but don’t ask them to take on any other role. Make sure you’ve thought about the number of people you’ll need to put up or out any props that you’re using, or how you’ll steward a space – less of a challenge if it’s early in the morning.
  • Those capturing the stunt – this should include any spokespeople you’ll need for the media interview, or capturing social media content. If you’re looking to get media coverage don’t assume that papers will send their own photographer, so look to book your own so you can share the photos with your press release.
  • Those supporting others who are involved – if you’ve got young people, or celebrities (which can be helpful in getting media coverage), or politicians coming along you’ll probably want some people who are explicitly linked to working with them.

Ahead of the event, put some time in to brief everyone on what’s going to happen and their role on the day, plus what to do if something goes wrong.

Approach planning the stunt as you would any stunt – exploring putting together a project plan (or whatever tool you find most useful for planning), put in some regular check-ins with key colleagues that are working with you on it, set a budget, and once it’s all over do a quick learning review or evaluation

Every charity will approach this differently, so follow your internal guidance, but expect to put together a risk assessment for your stunt – it’s something that’ll be needed for some authorities to give you permission to use a specific space, but also a useful way to test what you need to be thinking about.

You might find that you need to demonstrate that you have public liability insurance – which would cover your organisation if something went wrong (which is unlikely), and you’ll want to make sure you’ve got contact details of any suppliers you’re going to need on the day – one of my learnings is if you’ve got to get props on site, make sure your courier or van driver knows exactly where to drop them.

It’s very unlikely anything will go wrong, but I always find it’s useful to run a quick ‘what will we do if’ exercise to think about any key things that might be challenge you occur on the day and what you’ll do – for example what happens if its raining, or someone does turn up, and to take with me to any stunt a bag of ‘just in case’ materials like Gaffa Tape, cable ties, marker pens, etc.

Finally, there are loads of people who can help, from professional event planners who can take on lots of the planning and logistics, to other campaigners who’d always be happy to offer some advice based on what they’ve done.

In praise of network weavers

Successful movements don’t just occur – they often emerge thanks to patience and the ongoing work of individuals and organisations to bring them together.

It’s the quiet and behind-the-scenes work of network weavers (sometimes referred to in documents as ‘movement builders’ or ‘field builders’) that helps to create a critical mass for change.

As IPPR found in their study last year of what works when it comes to making change – that in many successful movements it’s thanks to the work of individuals and organisations who make sure everyone’s activities ‘add up to more than the sum of its part’ – work that is often in everyone’s interest but no-one’s immediate remit.

While in this report from the US foundation, Bridgespan Group (see above for the 4 Superpowers they identify), they highlight the importance and unique role that some who is at a nerve center of a coordinated approach who is able to work in partnership and at the service of a myriad of actors devoted to solving a given problem or cause.

Almost by design, these individuals can go overlooked, but without them many of our causes, but what are the key characteristics of effective network weavers;

  1. They have a deep understanding of the issue and the ecosystem around it. They look to have a birds-eye view of what’s happening, and who’s involved. They understand those who are deeply involved in the work on this issue alone, and other who are working across a breadth of issues who can be drawn in. They find opportunities to bring those working at a local and national level, and with those working in adjacent issues.  

  2. An organisers mindset – they use the tools of organising to build the ecosystem or field that’s working on an issue. They look to actively build connections, build trust and confidence through 1:1s, and bring people to the table. This work is often in the background without fanfare.

    Like organisers, they’re consistently assessing is what’s happening, adapting their point of view, and working out how to take advantage of a moment. It’s not a passive convening role, but an active but quiet leadership knowing when to push for action or when to encourage reflection.

  3. Hold trusting relationships built through humility and openness, accepting when they get things wrong as well as right. They’re able to look to bridge the divides that often occur in movements, looking to find ground between those who are reformists and rebels.

  4. Share tools and knowledge – they offer those involved in the work the tools that are needed to help to deliver change, and if they can’t they go and find them. They’re open to sharing the knowledge and insight they have – on social media, in newsletters, and in meetings. They don’t see the value in hoarding it within a small group but in making it available to those who need it.

  5. They know when to step in – I’ve written about this before in coalitions, that every coalition needs someone who will step in to make things happen, from minutes of meetings to moving forward a vital action. It’s the same with network weavers, they know when to step in to help move forward a project or initiative, and also when to encourage something to come to an end.

Timeless tips for any campaigner

They say that you shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover”, well in the case of ‘101 Ways to Win An Election‘by Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield it’s advice I’d give about the title.

This isn’t just a book about how to win the election – although it’s full of that from two experienced political campaigners if you’re looking for it – but it’s also got some great tips for anyone about how to win campaigns.

Some of the early chapters on strategy and messaging have some brilliant lessons that all campaigners would do well to remember.

Reading it was a refresher into some simple and timeless truths for all campaigners. Here are my top 10;

  1. Have a strategy that is written down – create a strategy by making choices, about what you’re going to do – and also what you’re not going to do as well. Write it down. Ensure it has a purpose – the change you are looking to achieve, and a plan to achieve it. Ensure that your plan is plausible and that you can trace how that sequence of events could happen.
  2. Remember most of the time your audience isn’t paying any attention to what you’re talking about – your audience lives busy lives, and they’re often largely disconnected from the issues that you’re passionate about. You only have a brief moment to intrude on their lives and make your point to them. Ensure that you have a simple and emotionally compelling message.
  3. Avoid being a missionary or a martyr – A missionary is someone so full of campaigning zeal they fail to see how far their own priorities are from those they’re looking to engage, while a martyr is someone who believes the electorate is wholly wrong for not holding their own position. Sometimes we can be guilty of falling into either trap.
  4. Remember most of the time your audience isn’t paying any attention to what you’re talking about – normal people don’t spend most of their time thinking about politics. The repetition of your message is OK. Appeal to the emotional as well as rational mind. Detailed evidence-based slide decks will only get you so far.
  5. You don’t win people over to your cause by attacking them – so look to build common ground, and always give someone a path of retreat to look good if they change their mind.
  6. Be flexible – remember the old adage that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy“. Always be ready to adjust your plans.
  7. Build a team – however efficient and effective you are, you only have 24 hours in a day. Teams mean more people getting more work done, and different perspectives to help to make better decisions.
  8. Remember you are not your audience – firstly, they do not pay as much attention to politics as you (are you spotting this as a theme!). Invest resources in developing an understanding of what they think and why.
  9. Follow media coverage of what’s happening around you – your campaign doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but when you’re busy it can be easy to stop paying attention to what else is happening. Monitoring the media can help you spot new opportunities or avoid avoidable challenges.
  10. Borrow from other fields – look at how other successful campaigners campaign, but don’t stop there. Learn, adapt – and succeed from reviewing what others do.

What is your target seat strategy?

With the recent local elections out of the way, and thoughts turning to a potential General Election in the next 2+ years, I’m sure many campaigners are looking at their target constituency list and reflecting if they’ve got the right seats and MPs on them.

Putting together a target seat list is more of an art than a science, but when you have limited resources putting in some thought to the approach that you’re going to take and the rationale for it can help.

So where do you start, below I’ve listed a number of different approaches that you think about taking for your list;

  • Political Lifecycle – there is often a temptation to focus on those already holding the key political positions that you’re looking to influence. That can be important, but with Ministers changing regularly, and often by virtue of their ministerial role being less active in their constituencies, I’m not sure that just focusing on ministers is the best approach to take. Not least because it can take time to build your presence in a constituency and you can quickly find that work wasted when a reshuffle happens.

    But looking at other ‘life’ stages for an MP could be useful, for example;
    • Reflecting on those that are likely to get promoted in future reshuffles – perhaps by looking at who’s in junior minister and Parliamentary Private Secretary roles – they’re often the roles future Ministers take.
    • Building a base of support in the seats of MPs who are on key Select Committees or APPGs.
    • An approach that looks at those MPs who just got elected at the last election – based on an assumption that newer MPs might have more incentive to be seen to be active in their constituency as they look to establish themselves, or perhaps still working out what they want to prioritise as an MP.
    • You could play a long game by building power in those seats where an MP might be likely to retire at the next election, so you’ve got a base to influence new incumbent MPs.

  • Swing Seats – a very traditional approach to a key seat list, and ahead of the next general election I’m sure many campaigners will be looking at list of Red Wall and Blue Wall seats to see where to target.

    There is a strong political rationale for this – the views of constituencies in these seats will have an outsized influence in the next election and will see a disproportioned number of focus groups and media ‘vox-pops’ happen as a result, but the challenge can be to ensure that you’re able to build enough power to feel like your able to get cut through in what is likely to be a busy and noisy environment.

  • Political tribes – it’s easy from the outside to treat political parties like homogenous blocs, and while there are of course many things that unite MPs looking beyond party affiliation to the specific political tribe or grouping that they’re in can be helpful – this is a helpful, if slightly irreverent, look at some of the tribes in the Conservative Party (here is another). Membership of some grouping might indicate a greater propensity to support your issue or cause.

  • Local connections – given the importance of rooting your local campaigning in relevant local issues, you could build a list based on local connections – for example, if you’re campaigning on a specific environmental issue selecting constituencies that are home to relevant habitats or similar. It’d provide great opportunities to connect MPs to projects and volunteers.

  • Engage-ability – for supporters, there is nothing more demoralising that being asked to engage your local MP knowing that their MP won’t. The reality is that some MPs just aren’t as interested in their constituents as others so building a list, perhaps cut from criteria but with one eye on if the MP will engage can be a useful approach.

  • Personal background, interest or issues – if you’ve already got a list of MPs who are allies you could focus on building a base of support behind them, but beware that in doing so while it might help to strengthen your relationship with existing MPs it’s unlikely to build you any new or additional supporters.

What criteria do you use to select your target list of MPs?