Polarisation: why Brexit & a hung Parliament need a different campaigning style

“Umbrella bodies are the unsung heroes of the charity sector,” said the keynote speaker in the opening address. “Amen,” I tweeted. I’d been asked by New Philanthropy Capital to speak in a breakout session at their #NPCignites conference: an annual event about impact in the charitable sector. But the tone set by British Red Cross CEO Mike Adamson totally changed what I decided to talk about.

npcThree years of Brexit was our backdrop, as we considered whether campaigns can have an impact during “a period of change.” The brilliantly impressive Esther Foreman, CEO of the Social Change Agency, stole the show with a slide depicting a messy sock drawer, as she implored us to use this time to get our act together: clean up your database, check your GDPR compliance and get ready for Brexit to ‘get done’. The massively inspirational Jane Williams, from the Magpie Project in East London, joined Esther in urging us to use this opportunity to work on our ‘lived experience’ (something that I think the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has led the think tank sector in doing over the last decade). She also challenged us to make way for others, saying that: “if your face gets you through the door, hold it open for others.” How do I follow that? 

I tried to argue, like the opening speaker, that campaigns which harness the power of collective endeavour are the ones that maximise impact. I also tried to point out that there are opportunities available to us during, what feels like, a national political malaise. And, finally, I also tried to build on the idea that working in genuine partnership with people who aren’t like you, is the way to unlock politics when it comes to issues of social progress.

For the last two years, I’ve been advising international development NGOs on how to maintain political support for the UK’s commitment to 0.7% for overseas aid. Brexit has been the dominant climate but the hung Parliament has been the more relevant context. Elsewhere I’ve written about the lessons we’ve learned. At this conference, I wanted to focus on why I think we’ve had the impact that we’ve had. 

  1. We’ve worked cross-party
  2. We’ve worked collectively
  3. We’ve worked the system we’ve got, not the one we wish we had

Working cross party:

With allies on the Conservative backbenches, inside CCHQ and among right-of-centre thought-leaders, we’ve been able to identify a group of MPs who are variously: Brexit supporting, free-marketeers, deregulators, small-state, socially conservative, you name it! But crucially, these MPs share our view of foreign aid. In any given Parliament, we only need a group of MPs bigger than the majority that the government can command. Because, when the opposition is united, when the backbench rebellion is bigger than the majority, government whips will block votes they are likely to lose. What Brexit has shown us is that MPs will rebel, they will cross the floor and they will justify their actions in reference to their constituents, and not their party whips. 

Working collectively:

But to build a group of supportive MPs, you need to develop relationships with them. And that’s very difficult for one organisation to do alone. The NGO with the biggest government relations team can boast six dedicated members of staff, but the next biggest only has three. Most only have one. Yet 25 organisation working in concert can develop a relationship management system far more powerful and sophisticated than any public affairs agency.   

Working with the system we’ve got:

We’ve been a parliamentary democracy for centuries and will probably remain one for centuries to come. Yet the fracturing of the two party system probably means that the days of landslide victories is over. Hung parliaments and small majorities are probably here to stay. And that’s an opportunity for campaigners who understand the impact that constituents can have on MPs. Politicians can easily dismiss campaigns which seem to represent ‘other people’s people’ – or other parties’ voters. But a relatively small number of constituents can have a very big impact on MPs who may well represent 70,000 people but might only have a majority of a few thousand. Even MPs with five figure majorities can be highly sensitive to authentic engagement with constituents: just listen to the MP for Taunton (in this brilliant Redbox podcast) explain how she doesn’t look at polls, she doesn’t rest on her laurels and she regularly takes the pulse of public opinion on Saturdays during her supermarket surgeries. What are the shoppers in Taunton’s Tescos saying about your issue?

But you absolutely can’t do it alone. You can’t do it just from London. And you can’t do it firing up people who are only like yourself. You’ve got to work together. You’ve got to go where voters live. And you’ve got to make common cause with people that you profoundly disagree with on issues other than your campaigning priorities. The country many be polarising, but we don’t need to fuel that in the way we campaign, and if we want genuine impact, we need to play a different game. 

Richard Darlington is an original founder of WonkComms

He’s now Campaign Director for 25 leading UK NGOs

Find him on Twitter: @RDarlo 

WonkComms Original: founder and editorial board member

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