'Your Freedom' and better campaigning

The new coalition government seems to have gone a little crazy when it comes to website consultations. In the last few weeks we’ve had them announce ‘Spending Challenge‘ and ‘Your Freedom‘, with no doubt more to come in future weeks.
They’d say its all part of their new agenda of engaging with the public and moving away from a top-down approach, although the cynic in me says that it’s a good PR opportunity. No doubt time will tell if they provide good opportunities for campaigners, or if they’re just a diversion to provide some semblance of consultation but ultimately to ignore what people are saying.
However one process that campaigners should be interested in is ‘Your Freedom’ where the government is asking for what laws and regulations they should get rid of. High up on my list would be parts of the Serious and Organised Crime Policing Act (SOCPA for short).
Much has been written about the restrictions placed on campaigning by SOCPA, the need to give 6 days  notice to register to protest in Westminster, the arbitaroty 1 mile limit around Parliament and the way that its systematically made it harder to protest.Comedian Mark Thomas has shown the absurdity of much of the law, but the ‘Your Freedom’ consultation provides another way to reduce much of its impact.
Looking at the draft legislation, it repeals some of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) 2005 including the restriction of protests close to parliament. It also restricts CCTV use to investigation of serious crimes, repeals the 2005 Terrorism Act and restores the definition of a public assembly to 20 people rather than 2.
However, the draft does not as yet provide protection against the myriad other laws used to restrict campaigning – such as the Public Order Act (1986) which can be used to move the site of a protest, trespass laws used against people collecting petitions in shopping centres, harassment legislation that which bans “seeking to persuade someone not to do something that he is entitled or required to do” and terrorism legislation of 2006 which categorises non violent activists who damage property as terrorists.
The recent NCVO ‘Future Trends in Campaigning‘ publication highlighted the ‘marginalisation of dissent’ as a emerging trend for campaigners to address , so engaging with this consultation (whatever you think of its method) and also supporting the work of groups like BOND and NCVO in engaging on this should be hight up on the ‘to do’ list for campaigners to remove some these absurd laws to prevent this trend coming true.
Going forward it’ll be interesting to monitor the opportunities that the consultations provide to actually influence government policy. Campaigners should be watching to see how many of the most popular suggestiosn get acted upon, or just  to see if it goes the same way as the Downing Street petition site which attracted some really pointless suggestions. As campaigners, they’re going to present both challengs and opportunities. New ways of inviting campaigners to use their voice, but formats that can be difficult to engage in (the Spending Challenge doesn’t have an option to let people say what they think should be kept for example) and are untested in terms of impact on government policy.

Why I'll be pleased to see the end of the No10 petition site

Third Sector PR is reporting on twitter that the No10 petition site might be a casualty of the new administration. The site, was set up in 2006, and is perhaps best remember for the million plus people who signed a petition about road tax. The creators MySociety suggest that over 5 million unique e-mail addresses have used the site since its inception, but  I’d be pleased to see the end of the site.
Why?
One. Because I think it’s encouraged lazy campaigning. I’ve only once been involved in trying to encourage people to sign a No10 petition (and despite a huge effort we got about 2,000 names), but it seems that often it was an easy way to tick the ‘we’ve done something to target No10 box’. Good campaigning needs to be about thinking about the most effective target and then the most innovate way of reaching them. To think creatively about how you could get the issue to the attention of the right people within government. For some campaigning NGOs the petition site seemed to put a stop to that.
While I can understand the argument that when it was launched in 2006 it was a way of enabling and empowering anyone to raise an issue of concern, the sheer volume of petitions suggests that only those with a mechanism for broadcasting their idea succeeded. Campaigning has moved on and I think the recent examples of spontaneous, decentralised campaigns on twitter show that there are other tools for doing this.
I don’t think that many (any) policies were changed thanks to the petition site, and too many of them seemed to be a reaction to what was in the Daily Mail (close the Mega Mosque, save the Red Arrows funding, etc) on a particular day.
Two. Because I think it led to lazy engagement from the government with civil society. I understand that their were some guidelines about when No10 would respond to a petition, i.e. if it got over a certain number of actions, but placing numerical limits that are required to be met before enabling a response are very arbitrary. It felt that too often the site was a place for people with concerns to directed to and then forgotten.
My hope is that any review of the petition site leads to a better solution for how No10 will engage with e-campaigns.  A proper e-mail address for the PM would help those with embedded campaign tools, while  No10 thinking about how it’ll engage with campaigns that appear on a range of platforms (like twitter) would show that they’re following trends in the way people want to communicate with their government.

Top 50 Political Influencers

I’m a big fan of Total Politics magazine. Every month its full of articles that are invaluable to campaigners. This month it profiles the ‘Top 50 Political Influencers’, those key influencers who don’t hold a political office but have an important role in shaping government decisions.
I don’t necessarily agree with the whole list, I think it’s a bit light on influential business leaders, and a bit too full of directors of think tanks, but it’s a useful reminder of the importance of considering the role of those who aren’t elected when looking at ‘routes to influence’.
Spending some time considering ‘routes to influence’ is a key activity in planning a campaign. If you’re stuck for ideas, you could do a lot worse than having a look at some of the lists that Total Politics have produced.

Community Websites: a new space for activism?

While much has been written about the power of Facebook, and the impact of other social media tools in campaigning, another growing phenomena, that I’ve seen much less written about is the growth (or perhaps resurgence) of community websites, one of the most high-profile of which is Mumsnet, which seems to be in the news almost every week at the moment.
I don’t have any reason to spend any time on Mumsnet, but a quick visit to the site reveal that its a community of thousands of parents, not just talking about parenting but increasingly discussing a whole range of other issues (it has a very active election section). It’s not the only site like it, some of them are super-local, others national, but they all draw together people who share something in common but often seem to flourish into broader discussions.
Ben Furber has an excellent blog on LabourList about what this might mean for the political parties in the upcoming general election, but campaigning organisations should be considering the implications for them.
The traditional way of organising campaigning is changing to a space where people share the same interests, views and outlook in a virtual space. For campaigners, here are a few exciting challenges and opportunities that I think they presents.
Opportunities
  • To reach more (and new) activists, by dramatically reducing the barriers to entry, suddenly you don’t need to come along to a meeting, you can just log on and get involved. Equally you can spend as long as you like observing the discussions before you get involved.
  • To allow people to share their campaigning experiences with each other in real time, what they’ve found works, what doesn’t work, encouraging those involved to provide advice to newcomers.
  • To communicate rapid changes in strategy, no longer do organisations need to wait for the next mailing slot to update campaigners, the next campaign action or message can be communicated in real time.
  • To engaging people in the development of the journey campaign, suddenly individuals are sharing ideas about targets and tactics, trying them out and reporting back what works. It provide a good platform to crowd source of ideas, and then encourage others to adopt the most effective.
Challenges
  • To let go of the message, instead of the traditional campaigning method which sees the centre control the communications and asks, those involved will want to shape, change and interpret the message, suggest their own tactics, which might not always be seen as the most effective by the ‘professionals’.
  • To move beyond communities beyond a single issue focus – the strength of these sites is that people who join them have something in common, and go to them for community with those like them. The challenge for organisations working on other issues outside of this will be to get these communities to adopt their campaigns.
    For example the Mumsnet website,already has an active campaign page, most on issues of direct relevance to parents (like breastfeeding, miscarridge, and the ‘Million Mums’ campaign on maternal health).

Getting to know the Conservatives

Whatever happens in the upcoming General Election (and as a personal disclaimer at this point I’m doing what I can to get as many Labour MPs elected) it’s clear that while many campaigners have got comfortable working with a Labour government, but know less about how to effectively influence the Conservative party.
Here are my 3 suggestions to campaigners wanting to get to know the party that might form the next government.
1 – Get the daily lowdown on what’s happening
Signing up for the Conservative Home daily e-mails is the best place to get the intelligence on what MPs, councillors and activists are thinking and doing.
A day doesn’t seem to go by without the site featuring an announcement from a front-bench minister or the release of a new report or study. A valuable investment of 5 minutes each day and it costs nothing.
For other useful Conservative blogs to look at have a look at the top 100 right-of-centre blogs as voted by the readers of Iain Dale.
2 – Get to know the key players and who influences them
Being able to do an effective power analysis is central to good campaigning, and once again the people behind Conservative Home have excelled themselves producing this excellent wall chart which helps you understand who’s who in the Conservative Party. If you’ve got more money to spend, they’ll also provide you with a whole host of other useful resources.
Useful books to read include the very accessible ‘Cameron and the Rise of the New Conservatives‘ by Francis Elliot, the more academic ‘The Conservatives under David Cameron: Built to Last?‘ edited by Simon Lee and ‘Cameron on Cameron‘ by Dylan Jones.
3 – Find out about the fresh intake of MPs
Lots has been written that one of the defining features of the next Parliament will be the large number of new MPs. The Conservative website has a decent list of all its PPC, and a number of polling companies have put together reports profiling those that are most likely to get elected, like this one from Insight PA.
Even better more and more are embracing social media and have their own blogs, facebook pages and twitter accounts (here is a list from tweetminster). A quick search and you can find out all sorts about what they think on your campaign issue.

Campaigning in 2015

What might campaigning look like in 5 years time? NCVO have set out to answer the question in their recent paper ‘Future Focus’.
It’s an interesting paper, and its a useful exercise to take a step back and consider some of the broader trends that influence our campaigning.
The introduction argues that the context for campaigning could change significantly under the next government, as we see a change of government, new MPs and potentially a different culture amongst decision makers towards campaigning. Only time will tell on that.
The paper, produced by NCVO’s ‘Third Sector Foresight’ team then argues that there will be 6 drivers that will change campaigning in the next 5 years. Below I’ve summarised the arguments the paper puts forwards, I hope to add my own reflections in the next few days.

Driver 1 – Growth of consumer activism
We’re seeing a blur between lifestyle choices and what has traditionally been perceived a ‘campaigning’. With people increasingly taking ‘me’ actions, like boycotting products at the expense of ‘we’ actions like demonstrations. The paper argues that in a ‘time poor’ society these are easier to fit into people’s lives.

Driver 2 – More fluid activism
People wish to engage in a broader range of issues, moving regularly from one cause and organisation to another. This means some of the more traditional membership models that campaigning organisations have employed may no longer be viable. People are less likely to feel affiliated to a cause or a political ideology.
Driver 3 – Growth of New Technology
E-campaigning reaches more people, its easier to get involved in, but it also raises the number of people you need to get involved to get noticed (does it? I’d argue if you’re more creative you can still make your point). Moreover the collaborative nature of the web challenges the more traditional hierarchical structures of many campaigning organisations. People organise themselves they don’t need someone to do it for them.
Driver 4 – Professionalisation
The push from funders to make campaigning more effective, means that people are learning a set of skills rather than being compelled by an issue. Some argue this is detracting from the radicalism once found in movement. More funding is now available for campaign training/capacity building.

Driver 5 – Increase in competition and coalitions
The sector is experiencing a growth in single-issue campaigns, and technology makes it easier for more players to get involved. The growth of campaigns like Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ have started to blur public understanding of the issue, and encourages short-term engagement in issues. Trend that the private sector is increasingly collaborating with VSOs (voluntary sector organisations).

Driver 6 – Marginalisation of dissent
More laws and increased surveillance make campaigning harder to do. On the one hand there is a growing awareness that non-violent direct action can get media coverage that can provide a seat at the table, but one the other many organisations adopting a more ‘insider’ approach as the current government has made it easier to influence policy.

Twitter – here to stay

So, after a very long summer break I’m back…one of my first blogs back in February was about twitter I asked if it was going to catch on.
I was cautiously optimistic, I wanted it to work, but was wary that it could go the way of other social media phenomena. Well what a 6 months Twitter has had. The numbers of people using it are still growing, and it’s not hyperbole to say that it’s changed the face of campaigning.
Changing Policy – Lots has been written about the role of twitter in mobilising people, but last week was perhaps a high-water mark for twitter.
On Monday, we had the Trafigura story exploding on twitter, within hours of the Guardian publishing a cryptic article on its website about an injunction we saw people starting to tweet what the parliamentary question was.  Before long the story was leading on the mainstream news, and a scandal that was only going to get noticed by a few who had been following the  story was everywhere, a very public PR disaster! Liam from louder.org.uk has a good post on this.
Then on Friday, we saw twitter mobilise a record 22,000 people to complain to the Press Complaints Commission about an article in the Daily Mail on the death of Stephen Gatley.
Before that we had the organisation BeThatChange organising a day of action which saw thousands of people trying to get Gordon Brown to go to COP, the response was that Ed Miliband put up a poll on his Ed’s Pledge website asking people to vote for their political priority ahead of Copenhagen.  A few days later, and Gordon Brown announced he was going to COP.
No doubt there are many other examples that one could point to over the last few months, ILovetheNHS for example. Two thoughts about what these examples have in common, an immediacy within moments someone has picked up on the story, and in hours they’ve reached a tipping point that forces the target to respond. Secondly, few of these campaigns have been initiated by organisations but instead twitter has put the ability to mobilise in the hands of people with lots of followers on twitter.  Some more agile movements may have been able to pick up on them (for example 38degrees around Trafigura), but twitter is helping to put mobilising power to those with virtual networks.
Engaging with policy makers – Today, two people I know got responses from @EdMilibandMP to their questions/comment and I’ve seen an interesting discussion with @SadiqKhan about an announcement he was making on parking. So what? Well unlike most communications with ministers/MPs, the chances are those policy makers have actually responded themselves, Twitter has cut out the comms department, the secretary and allowed people to share what they’re thinking directly with those holding the red box. No doubt this phenomena will come to an end when the number of followers becomes overwhelming, but for the time its a great opportunity to take advantage of.
Two others useful things;
– Back in the summer the people who matter in Whitehall issued these guidelines about how government department should be using twitter, while they were ridiculed for being too long, they’re the best set of guidelines I’ve found if you need to persuade senior management in your organisation to understand and use twitter.
– I’ve been experimenting with act.ly as a way of getting supporters to use twitter to show their support for a campaign, initial experience is good.

Kingsnorth Six

The Observer today has a brilliant article and film about the ‘Kingsnorth Six’, the team of Greenpeace activists who scaled the chimney of Kingsnorth power station and the court case that saw them found ‘not guilty’. Its a fascinating look at both the tactics and the people behind the action and the subsequent legal battle.

38degrees – a new campaign movement?

Does today mark the birth of a new campaign movement in the UK? Their has long been talk of a British equivilant to MoveOn in the US or GetUp in Australia.  This afternoon I received my first e-mail from 38degrees, which is trying to follow the same path and mobilise people to act together to take actions on the issues that matter. Having assembled a team of advisors and staff from some of the most effective progressive campaign groups in the UK, you feel that this might be the one that succeeds.
The first action that 38degrees have asked people to take is to allow people to recall MPs, its a smart choice, big enough to feel that is an appropriate response to the situation, but achievable enough to actually possibly happen (as opposed to asking for electoral reform), its a timely issue and one which will resonate with people beyond those who traditionally take action. Its also something that already has seen some support from newspapers and politicians. It’s not clear from the action what they’ll do with the petition, but I’m sure they’ll report back in the coming weeks.
It remains to be seen if 38degrees will have the same impact that MoveOn and GetUp did. I hope it does, but the UK is a crowded campaigning marketplace with lots of organisations offering similar products and campaign methods, so they could struggle to differentiate from others.

Gurkha justice

Joanna Lumley has been successful in her campaign to guarantee that all former Ghurkha solders are allowed the right to settle in the UK if they wish. Its a campaign that has seen the government make a dramatic U-turn and for days dominated the news headlines. But what are some of the elements that made the campaign a success.
The right person to front the campaign – Lumley has also proven herself to be an effective political operator holding impromptu press conferences and using her profile to secure meetings with politicians from all parties to drive the case. As this profile in the Observer explained it was not only asking the actress who most people recognised and liked helped to give a face to the campaign,  but also the personal link that Lumley had with the issue. Her father was a major in the Army who lead a troop of Ghurkha solders, and it meant that she was able to speak from a position of integrity, and appeared to be prepared to invest a huge amount of her personal capital in leading the campaign rather than simply providing a face for a media opportunity before moving onto her next engagement.
Framing the issue correctly – At the heart of this campaign this was a immigration issue, normally something that plays badly with most of the media, but the campaign framed the arguments in clear moral terms, these people had fought for our country with honour. The right thing, the British thing to do was to let those who wanted to come to the UK, the Ghurka Justice website talks ‘a debt of honour’. The campaign picked great examples of heroic soldiers and meant that the press found it hard to do anything but ‘back the boys’. It wrong footed the government who thought that the immigration argument would prevail by proving that a stronger narrative existed.
Involvement of national newspapers -Both The Sun and The Mirror ran a petition in support of the campaign. Collecting tens of thousands of names and demonstrating broad public support for the issue, and showed that while newspapers might be loosing influence when they back an issue they make it hard for the government to ignore.
Building slowly – Although it’s made headlines in the last few weeks, this is a campaign that has been working hard in parliament for over a year building support, both amongst the opposition parties who got the issue to be debated in parliament, but also amongst backbench Labour MPs. Much of this work has happened quietly, but it meant that when the issue came to be debated many had considered the arguments and were prepared to vote against the whip.
Good timing – Undoubtedly luck has played a part in this campaign. The issue was debated at a bad time for the government that had been rocked after a number of potential defeats and PR disasters. It meant the opposition parties saw they could further wound the government and show that they had a better sense of what the mood of the country was.