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.

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.

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?

The Engagement – 10 lessons from the US campaign for same-sex marriage

The Engagement is Sasha Isssenberg’s (author of the Victory Lab which is another must-read) latest book, and it’s the authoritative book on the campaign for same-sex marriage in the USA,

An absorbing if long read that wonderfully intertwines the stories of those involved in the campaign, with the lessons and reflections on what did and didn’t work for the campaign.

It’s a great contribution to a lot of other useful writing on the campaign (I’d also recommend this) and I’d really recommend a watch of some of the online discussions that Sasha did as part of the promotion of the book, or a read of this.

As I read the book I noted down a few of the lessons that I think are applicable to all movements – most from the winning side, and one from those who opposed it.  

  1. Set out a clear plan for victory – advocates came together on multiple times to set out their shared strategy and playbook. The book makes it clear they didn’t always agree on the approach, but nevertheless spent time developing collective plans together and understood the role that different actors were going to play.
    Together they set out a ’10-10-10-20′ strategy looking at how the approaches in different States and the tactics and resources needed. I was struck by the sense of farsighted the movement had been.
  2. If you’re not getting anywhere with political processes, build pressure from outside politics – advocates for a time focused on corporates to try to recognise the rights of their gay staff to access healthcare for their partners and other rights to grow pressure from other routes on political decision-makers.
  3. Build a funding infrastructure committed to the 4 ‘multis’ – multi-year, multi-state, multi-partner and multi-methodology. I hope many movement funder will read the book – it’s a reminder that if we just aim to fund a slice of what we think is needed we will probably fail.
  4. Learn from past issues and campaigns – advocates spent time learning from the success or failures of others movements in the US such as abortion rights activists. We need to be students of what others have done, so we can learn and apply what might work for us.
  5. Recognise the importance of divergent tactics“there are many methodologies for social change and we really need them all pulled together in partnership and working to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts”. That can be uncomfortable when working in movements, but we shouldn’t forget it’s importance for our collective impact.
  6. Obsess about what works – advocates established the Movement Advancement Project to assess the effectiveness of what approaches were working and not – and help funders to surge behind those that were.
  7. Focus on messaging as well as operations – ensure you’re clear on who your audience is, and continuously develop your messaging. “no matter how many people you train and deploy to go canvassing, if you can’t figure out your message, you are dead in the water”
  8. Try new approaches – that helped the movement develop it’s ‘deep canvassing’ approach which focused on interactions that where seeking to change the views of voters as opposed to simply focus on identifying new and existing voters. 
  9. And one lesson from the opponents – trendspotting – opponents of equal marriage had a well resourced campaign, but also benefitted from a network of individuals within their network who effectively acted as trend-spotters. Looking for up-and-coming issues ready to make the jump from niche policy interest to mass concern.

10. Ask tough questions – finally, reading the book reminded me of this excellent article on questions proponents were forced to ask themselves and honestly answer, which seem vital to any successful

What all campaigners can learn from The Canary Craftivists

I’ve written before about the work of Sarah Corbett and the Craftivist Collective – I really admire the commitment to principles of gentle protest and the level of thoughtfulness that’s goes into the approach. In my view, while it’s easily dismissed by some it’s a unique but vital form of campaigning.

The movement’s most recent campaign, Canary Craftivists, appeared on my social media timeline throughout 2021, and I think it was one of the most interesting and original pieces of activism that I’ve seen for a while.

One of the benefits of being a patron of the Craftivist Collective (and I’d really recommend becoming a patron, for £10 per month you are supporting this important campaigning ) is that I recently got sent a copy of the #CanaryCraftivists Manual – which is a beautifully curated guide on how to run the campaign. Even if you’re not into crafting I’d really encourage getting hold of a copy as it brilliantly unpacks the Craftivist approach.

As Sarah explains the idea behind the approach was two-fold for “participants 1) organise a small gathering of craftivists as a ‘flock’ to hold a stitch-in by a loved local landmark and invite the local press to cover it and 2) handcraft a life-size canary and a personal letter for their local politician or other local powerholders urging them to do more and faster for the environment“.

During 2021, the reach of the campaign was really impressive, especially when you consider that it’s driven by a one-person team at the center of the Craftivist network – with 99 flocks came together across the UK, securing lots of local media coverage, seeing canaries sent to almost 200 MPs and achieving stacks of reach on social media.

And I think there are lessons that all campaigners can learn from the success of Canary Craftivists, here are just a few;

  1. Take time to find a tribe (or flock) – it’s easy to focus on finding individuals that are interested in the same issue or cause as you and mobilise them for action -that’s important. But what Sarah has done with Craftivism is take an alternative approach, find those with another interest (craft) and then invite them to get involved in acvitism – in a way that appeals to their existing interests, and it totally designed to help individuals to .

    As Micah Sifry wrote in his newsletter last week – we know individuals are more likely to get involved in activism for a cause when the following 3 conditions are achieved “First, they have to experience a direct, personal contact, through their social networks, to a movement organization. Second, they need to be at a moment in their lives where they are open to a personal change. This is what sociologist Douglas McAdam called “biographical availability.” And third, they have to actually participate in some form of initial activism—a rally, protest, meeting, counseling session or the like—which they enjoy and decide to continue doing”. It strikes me that the model of Canary Craftivism certainly achieves 1 and 3.

  2. Really think about the visuals and the asthetic – if your wondering about why a canary – the campaign took inspiration from yellow canaries because they are small and sensitive little birds yet in the past they quietly helped warn miners of dangerous pollutants such as carbon monoxide with miners. In the same way, the Canary Craftivists hope that their little canaries and local demonstrations will gently warn and help remind their politicians and governments about the urgent dangers of global warming.

    And it’s that level of thinking and detail that marks out this approach – sure, perhaps a canary doesn’t immediately make you think about climate and the environment, but spend a little time and it’s excellent connection, whatsmore it makes for great images and content that individuals want to share with others on social media.

    I know I’m guilty of not spending enough time thinking about how decisions about design and visuals impact my campaign approaches, but in a world where great images and visual content can stand out, there is something in this for all campaigners.

  1. Obsessively focus on the local – The campaign encouraging small gatherings (or flocks) to come together to meet and craft in loved and recognisable locations – using those gatherings both as an opportunity to generate local media coverage for the campaign – an important route to reaching local MPs – the target, but also the opportunity to connect with others in the local community who shared the same interests.

    As campaigners, we can often thinking about building up to a central moment or gathering, but the local flock approach clearly really worked – drawing in many who might have rejected getting involved with other forms of activism, and developing a model that was perfect for our socially distanced times.

Plan for your engagement with decision makers to be both memorable and thoughtful – each individual was encouraged to take the time to handstich and name a canary and send it to their local MP.

We know that every day MPs will receive hundreds of pieces of correspondence, from email, to letters to phone calls so the canarys really got noticed. The feedback from MP suggested that the carefully and thoughtfully stitched canary complete with letter will cause them to pause and not just respond with a pre-written response.

In few campaigns that I seen have seen such a stream of such considered correspondence from MPs and their staff who have recieved their canaries as exampled below – as another MP wrote ‘my whole team were awed by the kindness and the effort that you put in‘.

It’s evidence for a hunch that I think most campaigners hold – that MPs are more likely to engage for longer with something that has taken time for the sender to put together with thought – a reminder that with a bit of careful thought you can come up with a campaign idea that really makes a lasting impression.

If you want to support more amazing activism from the Craftivist Collective you can find out more about becoming a patron here.

Campaigning and the Church

It’s been a few years since I worked for a charity directly linked to the church – but because I’ve worked for Christian Aid and Tearfund – and as I’ve always tried to be open that my Christian faith has always been an important part of my motivation as a campaigner – I often get drawn into conversations and discussions by those seeking to understand a little more about how to engage churches in their campaigning.

I’ve had a few of those over the last month, so thought it useful to write a few reflections – that are by necessity, broad, on churches and campaigning – which might be useful to others.

  1. Go behind the ‘church attendance is down’ headline – it is, and that’s not news, the reality is that overall church attendance has fallen dramatically over the last few decades, but behind that overall trend is a much more complicated picture. 

Attendance at some denominations (like Methodist or United Reformed Church) that have often put social justice at the heart of their mission, appears to be declining faster – with some predicting that some denominations will be very small in a few decades if rates of decline continue. 

However there are other pockets of the church where numbers attending are growing – see for example the growth of the Catholic Church in London as an example of this, which has seen growth as a result of immigration into the city, or the continued growth of pentecostal and evangelical churches in urban areas across the country (including some growth in attendance at Church of England services in London – see graph (which is a few years old)).

Resurrection? | The Economist


So the story is more complicated and nuanced than the headlines would have you understand, but often much of that growth is centered in more urban areas, and that’s having an impact on where churches can be engaged in campaigning.

2. Understand the structures you’re navigating – as with any institution, most churches are part of a formal national structure – understanding it will help you to navigate it, but it’s useful to be aware that the overall decline in church attendance is putting pressures on those structures.  

For example, many vicars in the Church of England have multiple congregations or churches that they’re now responsible for. As attendance numbers have fallen, and the resulting impact on budgets – remember churches are mostly reliant on individuals contributions from congregation members, fundraising, and sometimes income that comes from investments or property – so bringing groups of churches together has been a viable financial approach. 

Just keeping the local church going is a rewarding, but often exhausting, vocation for those in local church leadership. It does mean that there isn’t an interest in campaigning or social justic causes, it’s just that the reality of local ministry with its many competing demands. That was before the impact of COVID, and the fact that many congregations haven’t been able to gather in person for much of the last 12 month which no doubt    

3. Don’t assume that just because you’ve got someone at the top involved means it’ll be a success – different churches have different relationships with authority and hierarch – indeed much of church history and the emergence of new denominations is arguably about difference over that, and like any organisation understanding it will help you to navigate it. 

Too often I’ve found colleagues who think that getting a Bishop (a senior role in both the Church of England and Catholic Church) onboard is enough – only to be disappointed. It certainly helps, but it probably doesn’t unlock as much as you might like. Also, be aware that churches often work on long timetables. Want them to get involved in your cause – plan months ahead if you can, and check the church calendar as well – your plan for a really important event on the Easter weekend is probably not going to get a fair consideration! 

4. Churches are about the communities they serve – I don’t have any data for it (although I suspect some readers of this blog would be able to point me towards it), but my hunch would be that during periods where levels of poverty and inequality in the UK are rising, then you’ll see a corresponding increase in the churches setting up projects and activities in the communities that they serve. 

In many communities, local churches (along with other faith groups) are a key player in organising the local food bank, debt advice service, shelter for the homeless, or the local refugee welcome group. Churches are about the community they serve  – but again it can mean the ‘bandwidth’ to connect on other topics or issues can be reduced, or approaches need to be made that connect with what is happening in a community.

5. Don’t be scared of evangelicals– most evangelical churches in the UK aren’t anything like what you might see on TV coming from America. Indeed, I’d argue that one of the stories of the last few decades is how much the evangelical ‘wing’ of the church has rediscovered its interest in social justice and the need for engagement in politics – I say rediscover because many social reformers identified as evangelicals, but that’s a whole theological PhD!

Go into most evangelical churches and you’ll find a commitment to action on the climate, fair trade, poverty, and other issues. You might find you don’t agree on everything – but good campaigning is often about building a coalition that is broader. Approach ready for a conversation to find the common ground, while accepting that there is something that your not going to agree on.

6. Churches like to work together – look around for the existing relationships, they might be through charities or organisations that have a long connection working on an issue – many of the campaigning organisations that we see around us have roots in churches, for example, the Children Society or Trussel Trust were both founded with links to the church.

With each other, often through local platforms like Churches Together groups which have often take a role at organising local election hustings (but like many other bodies in the church struggling to find volunteers), and with other faith groups – through interfaith platforms.

Working through those relationships and partnerships is important so approaching your work with that same emphasis on working together is a important place to start. 

7. The church is made up of people – so like any other charity or organisation, it can experience many of the same challenges and opportunities that other charities and voluntary organisations face. Congregational giving will often be squeezed if the overall economy is shrinking and individuals feel they’ve got to save, and like many charities finding volunteers to replace those who are choosing to step back or retire as they get older is a challenge that many churches also face.

Oh, and don’t expect everyone to hold the same view or opinion – indeed in many churches, you’ll find that the very opposite, a community of individuals united by the same faith, but politely disagreeing on much else.

Organising during Lockdown – some reflections from the last year

It’s about a year since we all went into lockdown here in the UK – an anniversary that coincides with about the same period of time we’ve been putting organising at the heart of our campaigning approach at Save the Children UK. 

As I wrote last January, the addition of organising alongside campaigning in our organogram was about a deliberate intention to move ourselves as Save the Children to focus much more on building the power of others in our campaigning approach – than simply focusing on mobilisation that perhaps we’d most comfortably focused on for much of the last decade. 

And no sooner that we got started, many of the plans and intentions that we had for our organising work had to adapt – as it was clearly not going to be possible that a vision of getting out and about to meet with those who wanted to connect with our cause, or traveling up and down the country to build leaders, all had to move online.

So as we’ve come to the end of a year of lockdown – it’s been a useful moment to take a step back and reflect on our organising journey over the last 12 months, and ask what I’ve learned from that.

So what’s worked and not worked? 

1. It’s put organising as the first thing on the list – We started last year with a couple of organising programmes going, but we now have so much more- a new programme now piloting working with students, some amazing work with parent campaigners – building on the brilliant Mums on a Mission community – which is at the heart of our work on UK child poverty, exploring work with diaspora communities after a number of years of ad-hoc work, and a more active network of Campaign Champions – our core organising role for those who want to stand with us for child rights that at any point in my time at Save the Children.

It feels like the decision to put organising at the heart of our work, has I think helped to remind us that this is core to the campaigning we’re looking to do – something to think about first, not something to add on. 

2. It’s transformed our engagement – driven by lockdown, but going digitial has totally changed who from our networks has been able to get involved. Before lockdown, despite recognising it, we were frankly too London centric.

Training days would typically happen near our London offices, but by moving everything to digital has removed that overnight – and as we’ve all grown more used to catching up with friends and family on digital platforms- so attendance at many of our online sessions has ballooned. 

But that’s not been without challenges, for some of those we’ve been working with, especially through our parent’s campaigning programme, access to digital devices or data has been a barrier, and we’ve not been as quick as we can be to resolve that. 

3. We’ve seen the community grow and leaders develop –  If the heart of what we’re trying to do is ‘build power’ through the leadership of others, then across the year I’ve seen lots of that starting to happen – individuals want to step up and take on responsibility.

But it’s also interesting that when I talk with colleagues I think that people still find the idea of being a ‘leader’ as something that fits a little uncomfortably, that they’re excited to be invited to step up to do the work and to given space to develop, but not sure about the label we put on that. 

4. It’s (obviously) been tough to do none of this ‘in person’ – sure we’ve seen lots of benefits from being able to digital, but there is still something that’s lost from not being able to have a chat over a cup of tea in the fringes of a meeting, or being able to celebrate with a high-5 or simillar.

The future might be more online, but it’s not going to be able to replace the fact that growing leaders is about connecting in person. 

5. It’s allowed decision-makers to decide who they want to meet with – we’ve had some amazing doors open for us in the last 12 months, with more people getting involved and taking to Zoom to meet with their MPs or directly with officials, but the big change has been that it’s further allowed decision makers to be the gatekeeper on who they do and don’t meet with – and that depends on both the interest in the topic or often just how organised their office is.

Gone have been many of the more informal spaces that you can use, or the formal mechanisms like pitching up in Westminster to ‘green card’ your MP. In the long run I’m not sure this healthy for how we engage with our decision makers – as I suspect they won’t be enthusiastic about returning to how it used to be.

The same for media, now little happens in the studio, it’s much easier to get a leader you’ve been working with to share what they’re doing as opposed to someone from our organisation who can easily get to a ISDN line. 

6. You can’t stop telling the story – often, in conversation, one of my team will share the most amazing story of what one of our volunteer leaders has done, but it’s been really interesting how hard it’s been to translate that into indicators to share with the rest of the organisation – it’s amazing how strong the muscle memory is, pulling you in the ‘comfortable’ direction of what you’ve always done.

I’ve learned this year, that you can’t just make the pivot and then hope that everyone will behind what you’re doing. You’ve got to keep finding the stories of leaders, sharing those stories, putting them into context for others, reminding everyone why you’re doing this and explaining how this approach. Building power takes time, and often we can be impatient for quick results. 

Who knows what the next 12 months are going to hold – hopefully, we’ll soon be able to get out and about again, building an organising approach that allows us to mix the benefits we’ve seen from lockdown, but bringing in-person relationships back into the heart of what we’re doing. I’ll report back next March with some more reflections.

Campaigns Resolutions for 2021

A busy end to the year to 2020, moving house, and lots (too much) happening at work meant that regular posting stopped sometime in September.

But it’s a new year, so with my usual optimism I’ve set myself a new goal to get into a regular rhythm writing blog posts.

So this first post for 2021 are some other resolutions that I’m making – lightly informed by the last 12 months.

1. ‘Don’t take a fact to a narrative fight’ – last year saw so many examples of how effective framing and use of narrative can make such a difference if you want to win – on so many issues our opponents just seem to be better at this.

The phrase, which comes from this excellent paper by Kathryn Perera and others written in 2019 about what we can learn from the anti-vax movement, I think brilliantly encapsulates what we all need to do as campaigners.

Tell stories, follow the evidence on framing, and stop trying to win simply by presenting more facts or using myth-busting (which is proven to often reinforce the existing myth you’re looking to bust).

If you’re looking for more on framing I’d highly recommend a listen to this podcast which excellently unpacks some of the key ideas. 

2. ‘There is no such thing as the general public’ – too often I hear campaigners talk about wanting to ‘engage the public’, but as I’ve written before, a focus on the general public is often a sign that a campaign hasn’t done it’s thinking and planning when it comes to identifying who is really able to help you deliver the change you’re campaigning for.

Focusing on which segment of the public is going to be most important to help you achieve your outcomes matters, and if you’ve got limited resources then being clear on the ’who’ matters.

That also doesn’t mean that you just focus on those in segments that support or already agree with you, that can be easy to do, but too often it leads to going around in a circle.

3. ‘Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves’ – the mantra of community organisers is something that I’ve come back to time and time again over the last 12 months.

During lock down, I’ve seen our community activists step up, innovate, adapt, come up with new ideas and approaches –  and there are countless other examples from other campaigns.

Our approach to organising might have had to change as we can’t meet in person, but the principles have remained. Ask people to step up and they will, ask them to play more of a leadership role and they will – step back so others can step forward. 

4. Be generous and travel with others – if we want to succeed we need to go with others. There is that phrase, ‘if you want to go fast go alone, want to go far go together’.

In the last 12 months that we’ve seen the value and importance of going together – it’s always been true, and it often takes longer, but it’s more needed than ever before, with the scale of the challenges that we face as campaigners, ensuring that we’re traveling with others and practicing movement generosity is key to change in 2021.

5. See the whole canvass – I’ve found the SMK Foundation ‘Social Change Grid’ a really useful tool to look at in 2020 (pdf here), and the reminder in it that change doesn’t just happen through one route. That the campaigns that have been most successful are those that draw from across the whole canvass (see here and here for two examples I visualised during the year).

I know how easy it can be to get caught up in the part of the grid that you feel most used to or comfortable with, but we need to challenge ourselves to see the whole grid, and SMK have provided a really useful tool to do that. Looking across the grid matters more than ever.