“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
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
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
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.”