minute read

Three Big Consequences

of where we find ourselves

Image Credit: Kyle Bushnell

This chapter explores three of the big consequences of the current context outlined in the situational analysis.  They represent three strategic hurdles that a clear theory of change of how to influence in this current political settlement needs to take into account.  They don’t reflect an exhaustive list but do look to provide a “so what” response to our current situation.

Power has become increasingly centralised in a No. 10 that is unresponsive to civil society

Since the vote on EU membership, power has been significantly centralised in Number 10.  Academic Joseph Ward’s blog argues that this centralisation happened under Theresa May and has been taken further by Boris Johnson. Both leaders have shown limited interest in or responsiveness to the views of civil society. 

It’s worth noting that whilst we have a small box on the current landscape in Scotland, for the most part our analysis is focused on England as currently that is where those with most of the power represent, as can be seen in this map. Devolution has radically changed the influencing environment in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and we did not want to provide a superficial analysis of local action in those nations when that is best done by those who live and organise there.  

Credit: The Aid Alliance

It is easy to ignore us, and therefore our issues

Whilst being interviewed, one organiser with a background in working with politicians talked about how easy it was for decision makers to dismiss supporters of campaigning organisations as “other people’s people”. He argued that developing power through placed-based organising helps inoculate issues of climate justice, migrant rights, internationalism and other human rights issues against the charge of being “metropolitan elite” concerns by demonstrating local support. This idea is further explored in this blog by Richard Darlington where he advises getting to know the big beast cabinet members and invites us to consider who is ‘looking up’ and ambitious to take the next step on the political ladder, who is ‘looking down’ and worried about who is hot on their heels and who is ‘looking out’ and thinking about their long-term political legacy.  Darlington’s blog serves as a helpful reminder to all campaign strategists that each new administration demands a new influencing approach.

The operating environment is suppressing ambition and therefore progress

As reflected in the section on How We Got Here, we know from the latest Sheila McKechnie Foundation survey of campaigners that they feel that they are operating in a negative environment for campaigning. This was a theme that came up repeatedly during the interviews for this research and is having two effects.

The first is that campaigners face both real and perceived constraints which suppress the confidence of their organisations.  One interviewee reflected that the operating environment had become an excuse given internally for stopping potentially high impact activity, even when what was being proposed was well inside the law.

The second is that organisations are now lowering their ambitions and guarding what little access they have to government even more fiercely precisely because it is so scarce.  One interviewee talked at length about how the current campaigning environment was, in their view, limiting what organisations were calling for and suppressing ambition, giving examples of where decisions had been taken not to ask for the change that was needed to have a transformative impact, but pragmatically for what they thought that they could secure from the government.

Responders to the Sheila McKechnie Foundation research are concerned about a further “chilling” impact on campaigning from proposed legislation: 73% are very concerned about the impact of the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill, 79% are somewhat or very concerned about the Elections Bill and 60% are very concerned about the Judicial Review Bill.

The task ahead

Taken together, these three challenges mean we cannot continue to use the same tools that have served us well in the past but are unlikely to work in the conditions we face in the 2020s. Instead, we should take our lead from an emerging group of leaders, both those in grassroots groups delivering so-called ‘second wave’ organising and those who have developed innovative new models that have feedback loops between what is happening on the ground and what is going on in the ‘rooms where it happens’ in SW1.
As we will explore, there has been a long tradition of organising in the UK, and in the late 1980s there was the development of ‘first wave’ organising as techniques from the US pioneered by groups like the Industrial Areas Foundation were blended with existing power networks in the UK to develop a range of community organising approaches. More recently we have seen a ‘second wave’ of organising develop across the UK through organisations such as ACORN,  alongside groups that develop organisers such as Act, Build, Change and NEON.  These organisations have diversity, inclusion and anti-oppression as central to their approach and focus more on supporting the emerging leaders who are already having impact in neighbourhoods and workplaces rather than ‘sending in’ organisers which was more of a hallmark of the first wave.

Whilst these new organising traditions have been developing, campaigning organisations and larger charities have spent much of the last decade focusing on mobilisation approaches that built their lists, built their brands and supported their fundraising but arguably did little to build the power needed to demand systemic change. Over the last few years there has been a bit of a shift: in her blog Seven things we’ve learnt about social change in 2021 (and what it means for 2022), Kirsty McNeill of INGO Save the Children identifies that more and more big charities are incorporating organising models into their approaches. Increasingly too, large organisations are pooling their resources to support local work through efforts like the Aid Alliance’s Power Postcodes initiative (see box in section 5), allowing them to link local power building to sophisticated joint public affairs efforts at a national level.    

These two models, of locally rooted anti-oppression work and loosely coordinated local-to-national influencing work, are showing promising results as they develop in parallel. More powerful still would be cooperation between them, allowing the development of a thriving organising ecosphere where everyone focussed on building people power could learn from and support one another, confident that collaboration yields better results than competition.