Campaigning: let’s start a new debate

11 September 2014

Esther Foreman is Founder and Director of the Social Change Agency, a trustee of the MS Society and IVO. You can download Peering, a report on Lobbying in the House of Lords here.

Shock, horror—politicians don’t like being barraged by a huge volume of communication. They do, however, expect this as part of the territory, and have even been known to use it themselves. Yet in a world where your political target is drowning under a sea of emails—most of which are bland, unhelpful and monochrome—it makes sense to produce communication which is well thought-through, polite, and if possible based on fact, feeling and solution, regardless of which medium you use.

When I started my career in campaigning 15 years ago, we built email lists by collecting postcards. We then daringly transferred over from our printed postcards to using online mediums. It was new, it was exciting, and it was innovative. I had to make presentations to our board about digital marketing, data management and advocacy, while aged trustees proclaimed wonder at this newfangled technology.

We opened NPC’s recent debate, Is hashtag activism killing grassroots activism?, by asking who isn’t using digital campaigning? In a room of 150 practitioners, only one person put their hand up. It is a given that the use of the internet is threaded through our common existence, not just as campaigners, but also as humans. This debate is done. It is like asking whether or not the use of a magic mixer has stopped the creation of wonderful cup cakes and their subsequent consumption because we don’t use wooden spoons. It is irrelevant now. We are campaigners: we will use everything we have in our cupboards to create change. When appropriate, we will use digital campaigning. When inappropriate, we will use face-to-face meetings or a written letter, or a policy report, or a tweet and we will make it as easy for as many people to join us as possible.

So what is really going on? Why is this debate still around? I challenged the sector yesterday to be more innovative around engaging people, power and change. Yes this includes the use of Snapchat to lobby politicians and new collaboration between organisations. It also includes tools that engage decision makers with interested public like, or canvas activists for deliberative policy making such as Loomio, or harvest our social media lists for communication gold like Enrich.

However, I would like to see more investment, competitions and awards given to stimulate innovation in campaigning. Sadly, there is no such thing as NESTA for the Campaigning world (although this week did see Campaign Bootcamp on their 50 top radicals). If we spent 25% of our resources thinking about the future, rather than looking backwards, then we stand a large chance of being able to shape it. And we need the sector players to help stimulate this.

This leads me on to my final point (and then I promise to get off my knitting needles). If we continue to have discussions about tactics, we never really get the chance to have the nitty-gritty conversation. We are happy to come together to discuss community generated campaigns v. digital campaigning—but this is a straw man of our time. Why aren’t the campaigning organisations starting to talk properly to each other about the real issues that matter; why are we will struggling to engage the public over aid? Why aren’t we unable to reframe the conversation about benefits, or immigration and housing through campaigning? Hmm, expect a petition email from me soon.