“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is an adage which holds true in many settings, politics not completely excluded. Key to making change, is understanding who has the power to make that change.
Of course the biggest decisions are ultimately made in parliament, by MPs (although as we’ve previously discussed; mayors, councillors and devolved administrations have a degree of policy-making power also).
But MPs, and more importantly the government ministers who bring forward legislation, do not reach decisions in a vacuum. The policies they draw up and vote on are not simply their own original thoughts, but the culmination of the work and influence of a whole load of people.
Unfortunately, the people who should be involved in making certain policies, often aren’t. At JPIT, we have been very vocal about the failures of Universal Credit, failures widely attributed to a lack of understanding of the reality of poverty. If the government had truly listened to people with experience of poverty and what they needed, the policy would have looked very different.
This is why a number of churches have been involved with Poverty Truth Commissions – bringing together experts by experience and decision-makers to try and develop policies which reflect the realities of poverty; closing the gap between policy-makers and people affected by policies.
It’s also worth noting that the types of people who have the most influence in policy often depends on the type of policy being developed. Scientists have been incredibly influential in developing the public health response to coronavirus, but will be much less influential in welfare policy. Ditto, Unions may influence the government on public sector pay proposals but less so on foreign policy.
So, besides MPs, who are the movers and shakers in policy-making? And how can our advocacy involve them?
In a democratic society, journalism is vital for informing the public and asking questions of those in power. As such, journalists can affect change in direct and indirect ways. Indirectly, journalists can steadily raise the profile of an issue and shape public opinion in a way which politicians have to respond to. But journalists can also have a more direct impact in the breaking of certain stories – the exposing of widespread child sex abuse in the American Catholic Church by the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, a story which was made into an Oscar-winning film, is a famous instance of journalists affecting change.
If you are aware of a justice issue in your community which isn’t being talked about, then contacting a journalist is one of your best chances to give that issue exposure, and therefore put pressure on decision-makers to do something about it. If you build a good relationship with a journalist, they may even approach you in future.
Lobbying is a term understandably tarnished with negative connotations, however lobbying is another essential part of the political process. If the government are legislating around homelessness, you would expect homeless charities to have a say in any legislation being developed. They do this through lobbying—meeting with parliamentarians and putting their view across. The government might use the language of “consulting with stakeholders” but the essence is the same – interested parties trying to persuade politicians of their point of view. The Central Lobby in the Houses of Parliament is so named because it is where constituents could lobby their MPs (and indeed still can – you can go to the desk and ask to lobby your MP, without the need for an appointment.) The more controversial forms of lobbying come where big businesses employ professional corporate lobbyists to influence change. Although businesses should of course be allowed to express their views on changes which affect them, this is an instance where a small number of people can end up having disproportionate influence due to their financial firepower.
Although politically impartial, Civil Servants also play a role in making change happen. Civil Servants who work for government departments are tasked with implementing the objectives of the Minister in charge of that department. So, although they do not influence broad political decision-making, they do play a part in the specifics of government policy – through advice to the Minister and developing the practicalities of a policy.
Special Advisors (or SpAds) are also technically part of the Civil Service, and although they have no direct power, they have the ear of those with the most power possible. SpAds perceived to have considerable influence, such as Dominic Cummings, have made the role of Special Advisor a controversial one. Although all politicians of course need advice in order to make the best decisions, there is concern that some Special Advisors have too much sway over their ministers considering they are unelected and therefore unaccountable to the public.
Think Tanks and Charities
Think Tanks are another group which play a somewhat behind-the-scenes role in affecting change. There is seemingly no end to the number of “policy institutes”, “economic forums”, “centres for [insert policy area here]” which produce research and policy ideas which they will try and garner political support for. Although rarely having direct impact on policy, think tank members will move in the same circles as decision-makers and often end up as politicians themselves. Whilst recognising Think Tanks are often ideologically motivated, checking out their research can be a useful way of seeing what policy proposals are out there for an issue you are passionate about, and referring to research in any correspondence might give extra weight to your view.
In addition to Think Tanks, charities will also conduct research and make proposals based on their on-the-ground experience. These will often be quoted by MPs in Parliament and can get significant media coverage, making them a useful tool for any activist. Attempting to reinvent the wheel can be a common temptation, so checking out what campaigns are already being run by charities and other community organisers is an important step.
The influence of Trade Unions on political decision-making is a controversial issue, but their mass membership and knowledge of how political decisions affect the lives of workers means they cannot be ignored. Although the role of Unions has changed over the years, the miner’s strikes in the 1970s which effectively brought down the Conservative government provides proof, if any was needed, of their potential significance. Joining one can provide greater opportunity to affect change both in your workplace, and on a political level.
Love it or hate it, celebrities often use their large platforms to speak out on social issues, and occasionally this can have a tangible impact. The BBC One series Blue Planet II, and David Attenborough’s advocacy alongside it, has been credited with changing perceptions of plastic pollution in the UK and forced the government to consider greater measures on reducing single use plastics.
Not every campaign will be able to garner a celebrity endorsement, and nor will every campaign need one. But the increased exposure it brings is undeniable, and therefore often desirable.
The majority of change-making may require a combination of the aforementioned forces working together, but the most heartening stories are perhaps those where ordinary people have made significant change. Gina Martin was the victim of upskirting at a festival in 2017, and with the help of a very savvy social media campaign, managed to change the law to make this illegal. Hassan Akkad almost single-handedly forced the government to extend the NHS Coronavirus Bereavement Scheme to cleaners, porters, social care and care home staff, after posting a video which went viral on Twitter. The Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd have resulted in convictions for his killers and the Minneapolis Council pledging to disband its police force. These are just a few examples that show the power ordinary individuals can have to influencing important change.
It’s important to be realistic. Not all social media campaigns get any traction, even the most successful petitions are often only debated once in a parliamentary committee room, most emails to MPs will get a generic response from a staffer, and protests rarely put sufficient pressure on governments. But the payoff is huge when us ordinary people see something is unjust and manage to change it.
So “let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”