Last week I heard Craig Bennett, Director of Friends of the Earth (FoE, England and Wales) talking about the importance of the “power of doing” in campaigns. (He was at the Directory of Social Change Conference, ‘Campaigning and Lobbying in a Changing Political Landscape ‘ which I also spoke at on ‘Why Campaigning Matters’ *). Part of his new strategy for Friends of the Earth is to try to run more campaigns based on creating proof and example, rather than just being a policy advocate.
Bennett’s particular context was that with a Conservative government in England generally pretty hostile to what FoE is trying to achieve (see for instance this blog – and it’s not got any better since then), rather than doing the obvious and having a head-on fight with the government in Westminster, FoE should take opportunities to show change works by working with government in the regions and in Wales.
He is right of course and it is a principle that applies to many situations where the most powerful opponent facing you is also the most negative. Picking a fight there can attract a good deal of attention but it’s unlikely to be the most fruitful battlefront (see ‘Force Field Analysis’ p 137 in How to Win Campaigns). The point of campaigning should not be to show that your opponents are wrong but to get them to do what is right.
In the current British situation, the English Government has proved itself retrograde on the environment. But thanks to devolution of some powers, Scotland and Wales are free to go their own way on some matters, and now have much more progressive policies on topics like renewable energy and waste.
An Opponent Boxed In
Bennett’s strategy also makes sense because the English Government is politically vulnerable. It has boxed itself in to a position in which it is vulnerable to campaigns. Lots of evidence shows that the positions taken by George Osborne, nominally the British Chancellor of the Exchequer but the de facto Prime Minister, are way out of step with public opinion on the environment. In other words the public, including most Conservative voters, are ‘greener’ than Osborne’s position, which he has largely adopted because he wants to out-flank the green-hating UKIP and its potential followers, on the far right wing. This plays well for Osborne on the politics of the EU where the Gvernment needs to win a promised referendum on membership but it is a hostage-to-fortune on many other issues.
Bennett pointed out that the tax on plastic bags, now also introduced in England, was first introduced in Wales. Opponents of the ban had forecast all sorts of problems with such a move but its success in Wales showed that these were groundless. Consequently the English Government had, eventually, to follow suit.
Likewise, many cities have ‘sustainability’ policies well ahead of anything pursued at a national level under Osborne’s leadership, and giving more powers to regions, and directly elected Mayors for cities, is part of Osborne’s agenda. This creates potential platforms for campaigns on topics like air pollution from traffic which have much greater resonance at a city-wide level than nationally, especially seeing as in England, Conservative Party support is strongly concentrated in rural and outer suburban areas.
In addition, as in every campaign, it is important to understand the psychology of the key decision maker. In this case although Osborne likes to position himself as a rightwing liberatrian (and the political Left help him in this) he is above all a pragamatist who wants to remain in step with what is popular. So for example, in 2011 his government executed its first big u-turn when it caved in to pressure from a campaign against the sale of part of the English Public Forest Estate (state owned forest). A true rightwing ideologue might have pursued it as a way to reduce the role of the State but seeing opposition from ‘Shire County Tories’ who love the woods to walk their dogs in, as well as 500,000 people who signed a 38 Degrees petition against it, he gave way.
Last week Osborne gave a major speech in Parliament on his ‘autumn statement’ setting out his spending plans. Reporting focussed on his u-turn on tax credits (mostly affecting poor families), an example of his pragmatism: his ideology said do this to move to a ‘low welfare’ state but he u-turned to be popular. He also cut spending on the environment, transport and other areas but was careful to include ‘protection of funding for our national parks and for our forests’. The official version even includes a scripted joke about the proposed sell-off: “We’re not making that mistake again”.
If you wanted evidence that campaigning gets results, that’s it.
(Campaign evaluators should take note. So public an acknowledgement of an impact may be rare but you can often get such insights from private conversations with those who were the campaign ‘target’, or were close to them, especially if you do so through third parties).
Doing is More Convincing than Talking
As Craig Bennett also pointed out, there’s a more basic campaign truth here. Doing is a lot more convincing than talking. As he said, if back in the 1970s FoE had simply advocated recycling, very little would have happened but starting with the famous bottle action (which was in fact about re-use not recycling), the organisation got stuck into practical projects to implement recycling. I confess that as a student activist at the end of the 1970s, I helped collect newspapers for recycling around Aberystwyth in Wales. I seem to remember we had a horse and cart. Such ‘act locally think globally’ campaigns worked: showing they had public support led Local Councils to start proper recycling schemes.
Moreover if you are first in the field, and by doing you become the go-to ‘experts’, it can give you something else very valuable. It gives you ‘primary property’, something which others such as the media, can only get from you.
The Zero Sum Game on ‘Doing’ For Politicians
The dilemma for ‘neo-liberal’ politicians like Osborne, who want government to do less, is that they also want to command the public stage when it suits them as the voice of authority on what can and can’t be done, and what can and can’t work. Yet the less government actually does, such as running things like public services or building infrastructure or regulating to protect public goods, and the more it hands over delivery to the market or voluntary sector, the less ‘power of doing’ it has.
Even if it still regulates to create ‘frameworks’ for delivery by others, the more arms-length that becomes, the more ‘power of doing’ it loses.
It’s a zero-sum-game that politicians hate to acknowledge and their response is usually to try to avoid talking about those areas, or to give the symbolic impression that they are still hands-on. Hence George Osborne’s increasingly comical enthusiasm for being seen in “high visibility” work jackets and a hard hat at engineering works, while at the same time doing almost nothing directly to boost British manufacturing (and putting thousands of people out of work in the engineering-intensive renewable energy sector).
This creates a structural campaign opportunity for anyone who is actually doing stuff that shows what’s possible, and if it also shows what’s popular, democratic politicians find it very hard to resist any demand to do likewise. It’s hard work but it is a way to force something onto a government agenda that the government politicians did not want to be there.
(Campaigners interested in visual language should see this gallery of Osborne in high vis jackets compiled by The Independent newspaper. I predict these have become a liability and will soon stop. If not we may see one of Osborne with a high-vis wearing Guide Dog for the Blind as his press office must be running out of new opportunities for high-vis photo opp’s).
*For a version of my talk on ‘Why Campaigning Matters’ see Why Campaigning Matters txt Chris Rose 27 11 15 for DSC blog ver