#actingtogether It’s not all on you: how to lobby your government for change
The next instalment of the SGOs ‘its not all on you’ series is about lobbying for change. Having been interested in politics from a young age, even doing an A Level in it, lobbying is something I feel is very important to be aware of. These politicians are people we elect to represent us, so are almost contractually obligated to hear what we have to say. They may not be able to do anything, but they should receive your thoughts and feelings as a constituent that they represent.
Lobbying is as simple as letting those who make the decisions know what you think about issues. Usually the end result of that is aiming to get those people to get behind your change and push for it. Sometimes it’s things that impact your community like getting road humps outside your child’s school or CCTV in a local car park and other times it’s pushing for a support against climate change. Either way, lobbying is about the pursuit of change no matter how big.
Back in December I wrote a blog post about students and their role in protests and politics (linked here). The post came just ahead of the general election that saw Rosie Duffield re-elected with a much stronger majority than she had previously held and I don’t think students can be disregarded as contributing to that. Whatever your political allegiance, your voice does matter because what you are concerned about it likely impacting others as well.
Your first step should be to work out what you hope to achieve in your lobbying. Work out who can help, what motivates them and what might appeal to them or catch their eye. You also need to be clear on your facts; lobbying isn’t about persuading people to do something by the force of your personality. It’s about giving the right people the right information at the right time in the right way.
There are different people that you can speak to about your issue. You can contact your MP. They are the person that has representing you in their job description, therefore will at least read what you have to say. How to go about doing that is linked above. Your MP is not your only port of call, and may not even be the best person for you to reach out to. There are lots of different ways that you might be lobbying for change and the people who may be able to make the most difference are not necessarily those sitting in Parliament. You may get more clarity and a clearer answer if you lobby your local council first. Otherwise you can contact either the correct department, agency or public body, all the contact information for them can be found here. Your other option is to contact a member of the House of Lords. Whilst they are not elected, the members of the House of Lords often work on topics of particular policy interests or expertise, so are normally quite knowledgeable about their specific topic making them useful people to help shape the change you wish to see.
To decide who is the best person to contact you need to think about the following questions:
- Who has the power to take the decision I want?
- What will interest him or her?
- Who else would they listen to?
- How can I make it easy for them to agree with me?
Depending on your issue, you may want to lobby the national government. A word of warning though, this isn’t easy. Whatever politicians say, all governments hide themselves away from the people they represent because they don’t have as much influence on change as they would like us to think. Accessing the national government isn’t easy but can be done. There are a few ways of going about it and different people that you can go to:
- Through your MP. They do have access to ministers, but just remember that most backbenchers have little clout.
- Through forming or joining an effective pressure group. These carry weights, so get a group behind you. It will appear more representative and grab headlines. Think Fridays for Future and such.
- Through the press. Even more than most, this government responds to the media agenda. The papers who are more sensible to go for are the Daily Mail and the Sun.
Approaching your MP directly may be challenging but it’s not impossible. You can write to your MP at the House Of Commons or at their office in your consistency. However, you need to be aware that most MPs simply pass on all constituents’ correspondence to the appropriate minister for their comments. It’s possible that your MP just becomes a bureaucratic post office between you and the government. You could try seeking out face-to-face interaction with your MP, either by making an appointment to see them at the House of Commons or by attending a constituency surgery your MP may be holding. Either way, pursuing this may be a challenge so be prepared to make smaller steps to begin with.
The best approach to take depends on your MP. Some are very active on constituency matters, and respond very positively to any approach from constituents. Others will do little more than act as a post-box unless the issue particularly interests them. You will find there is a correlation to how long they have been in office and how active they are in the community. For instance my MP has been the MP for my area since 1997 and rarely gets involved with community matters and if he actively campaigns I’ve never heard about it. So if and when you decide that you want to approach your MP:
- Try to work out what will interest them, and make sure this is highlighted in your first approach. You need to make sure you entice them to actually care about the issue by appealing directly to them. The best way to do this is by looking at their voting record previously and appealing to them using the issues they have already voted for.
- If possible, make it clear that you represent a group of his or her constituents, that you’re not just acting on your own. Group action is a lot more effective than single person action. When I was in secondary school, my entire year wrote letters to our MP asking him to vote against cutting the funding for a drug that one of the girls in our year needed to take for her disability. Doing it that way was a lot more effective than just that one girl writing to him.
- Make sure you understand what position he or she has been taking on the issue before you make your approach. Read your local newspapers. Check whether your MP has a web site. Check Hansard to see if the issue has been raised in the House Of Commons and whether your MP has made any comments. If they have consistently voted against your issue, ask them why using facts and information you can source to encourage them to review their stance. This will be a challenge but you might just get a straight answer!
- Know what you want him or her to do. MPs will often ask you what you want to do to help. If you know, and you have a plan by which you can involve them, you can respond positively. If you don’t know, you don’t have a plan, you’ll be losing a golden opportunity.
You could also go straight to a minister, the people that are actually able to create and enforce change in your chosen area. HOWEVER, ministers do not reply to letters from members of the public. If you write simply as a citizen to a minister, you’re likely to receive a reply from a low-ranking civil servant, therefore you’re unlikely to be able to speak directly to a minister. If you want a minister to see your letter, you need to do one of the following things:
- Write it as a constituent. Ministers’ offices ensure that ministers see all of their constituents’ letters immediately. The minister will give a personal reply – though the letter will still be drafted by civil servants.
- Write as a representative of a nationally recognised body or a local body with plenty of clout. If the minister’s office believes that you represent a significant organisation, it’s possible that the civil servants handling the letter will ask the minister to sign a personal reply will ask the minister to sign a reply himself or herself.
Motivating a minister is another route that you can go down and there are a few different ways you can go about that:
- Get press interest. Contact the minister’s local newspaper or try to contact the Lobby (political) correspondents of one of the serious newspapers. Under New Labour, “serious newspapers” includes the Sun and the Daily Mail as well as the more traditional broadsheets.
- Personal interest. If the issue is something the minister has campaigned about in the past, your campaign may spark an interest.
- Political risk. The minister will act if there’s a risk of being criticised for neglecting your issue. You need to make it seem likely that the risk exists.
- Political advantage. The minister will take a personal interest if there’s a chance that taking your side will result in a popular decision.
The final option is for you to meet with a civil servant. Their job is to advise ministers on policy from a non-political standpoint and will access your case on the basis of facts and logic rather than political expediency. They will try to act in accordance with the government’s policies, but only on the basis of helping to implement them. They won’t be developing the political theory behind policy. A civil servant’s job is to serve under any government that is elected and works under ministers who are shuffled around regularly and often have little expertise in the specific area they are presiding over. In order to make the life of a civil servant a little easier, and that little bit more likely to consider your case, make sure you do these things:
- Have all the facts to hand.
- Explain why you want them to advocate the change you feel is necessary.
- If they ask questions you can’t answer, promise to come back with the answers and actually make sure you do!
- Leave a note with them of your main points and arguments.
- Write to them after the meeting reminding them of their promises. Then follow-up with them after two or three weeks and ask them what progress they have made.
- If your appointment came as a result of you contacting a minister, write to thank them for arranging the meeting, and telling them what the civil servants said they would do.
Hopefully this post reminds you that you are not alone when it comes to moving for change and as you move from student to graduate, now is the perfect time to review the changes you wish to make.