The art of lobbying

A year ago, 25 voluntary sector workers were elected to the House of Commons. Kaye Wiggins talks to two about their experience of parliament and how the sector can improve its lobbying methods

Stella Creasy and Stuart Andrew
Stella Creasy and Stuart Andrew

- This article has been corrected, please see final paragraph

STUART ANDREW - CONSERVATIVE MP FOR PUDSEY

Stuart Andrew, Conservative MP for PudseyFormerly fundraiser for Martin House and Hope House children's hospices and the British Heart Foundation

Stuart Andrew's first year in parliament has caused him to question the approach he took to lobbying MPs during nearly 20 years of working in the voluntary sector. In fact, he says, he is positively embarrassed about it.

The MP for Pudsey started as a fundraiser for the British Heart Foundation in his early twenties and has since worked for charities such as Hope House children's hospice in Shropshire and, most recently, Martin House children's hospice in Yorkshire.

"The awakening thing for me since being elected is how rubbish I was at lobbying MPs," he says. "I used to send them a letter and a lovely leaflet about the hospice. I've realised now that there are a million charities out there all doing the same thing.

"When you look at an MP's postbag and the sheer volume of emails they receive each day, it's little wonder that we didn't always get the response we had hoped for. Frankly, looking back, I feel embarrassed."

Andrew says charities can be more effective doing other things.

"I was very impressed with the approach taken by Ovarian Cancer Action," he says. "They wrote to say they were holding a reception at the House of Commons, and a constituent of mine who had suffered from ovarian cancer would be there.

"That caught my attention, because suddenly there was a national charity that was directly helping one of my constituents. It was a human face, not a statistic. I instantly accepted that invitation and as a result I've joined the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ovarian Cancer."

Andrew says charities should also be clearer about what they ask MPs to do. "At the hospice, I just wrote to MPs explaining what we did at the charity. We didn't ask for anything specific. The MPs could have arranged adjournment debates on children's hospices or tabled specific questions about funding or access to hospices, had we asked them to."

Andrew's other tip for charities hoping to win the support of MPs is to collaborate with other charities. "If I get six different charities campaigning on the same issue, it might be difficult to know where to turn, but if I get an umbrella organisation, that makes it far more efficient for me."

Andrew, who grew up on a council estate in Wales and describes his background as "very working class", has been a member of the Conservative Party since he was 14. This, he says, is because he has always believed that the Tories' ethos promoted hard work and entrepreneurialism.

There was, however, a brief period in his twenties when he quit the Tories and joined the Labour Party. "When I came out as a gay man, I got anxious about how the Conservative Party reacted to it at the time, because they perceived it as being a problem," he says.

"I reacted by joining Labour. When I look back now, it's one of those cringeworthy moments. I rejoined the Conservatives and the party has changed a lot in its attitude to homosexuality since then."

Andrew says he has held strong political views since he was young, but these have been shaped and reinforced by his career in fundraising. "There are some within the sector that have become too dependent on small numbers of large government grants for their running costs, and that is not a sustainable approach," he says. "I ask myself: when the government funds the third sector, does that mean it's still the third sector, or is it just an extension of the public sector?

"When I first joined Martin House hospice, it received less than 6 per cent of its funds from statutory sources and it was my job to develop a fundraising strategy that was sustainable. That meant covering everything - legacies, corporate fundraising, community fundraising, trusts, the lot."

Andrew admits, however, that he sympathises with charities that are losing local authority funding. "Sometimes I have a struggle between my head and my heart," he says. "Losing funding is very difficult for charities, but it's not going to help anybody in this country, not least the voluntary sector, if we don't deal with the deficit."

 


 

STELLA CREASY - LABOUR MP FOR WALTHAMSTOW

Stella Creasy, Labour MP for WalthamstowFormerly head of public affairs and campaigns for the Scout Association and deputy director of the citizenship charity Involve

Stella Creasy laughs when asked what scouts have got in common with parliament. "Strange uniforms and a battle between the modernists and the traditionalists, I suppose," says the MP for Walthamstow.

But there's rather more in common between her previous role as a campaigner and her new job in Westminster than people might expect, she says.

"You don't stop campaigning just because you get elected. The idea that campaigning is about going in and telling MPs what you want them to do, then they either do it or they don't, seems very narrow. It's not a realistic version of how things actually get changed."

Creasy thinks some charities approach her in the wrong way. "You need campaigning organisations to lobby you, to bring issues to your attention and to challenge you," she says. "But many just want to come in and brief me about things, as if I don't read about them otherwise. That is frustrating.

"I'm as tough now on charities and voluntary organisations that want to brief me as I am on politicians who won't engage with an issue. Frankly, I think the poorer charity campaigns are those where you can tell that someone has been given a target to organise a certain number of meetings with MPs. In those cases, I have to ask myself exactly what it is they are trying to achieve."

Campaigners who present her with a problem should instead work with her on a solution, she says. "Whether it's local residents, community groups or charities, it's disrespectful to think your job is over because you've told me about a problem."

Asked whether she feels she is getting to grips with parliament, Creasy smiles. "That depends how you define 'getting to grips'.

The whole system here is ridiculous - it feels a lot like a public school might.

"There are all sorts of quirks that you have to get used to. And that's a problem in itself, because it intimidates those people that parliament is supposed to represent. My constituents shouldn't feel as though this place is a million miles away and irrelevant to them."

Creasy says she is enjoying her new life as an MP, but admits it has drawbacks. "You have to find the motivation that helps you to deal with what I call the arm-chewers," she says. "By that I mean the boring meetings that involve trying to make important changes.

"It's also less easy to talk about your job to people socially, because fundamentally people have all sorts of prejudices about politicians, and of course you try to challenge them. Having said that, people also have misconceptions about the scouts and, as a woman, admitting that you worked for them is always going to raise eyebrows."

Creasy says she is glad to have joined parliament at a time when the government's big society agenda means the voluntary sector is being discussed more than ever in the chamber, but she is deeply worried about what the agenda means.

"The big society is based on the fallacies that the state can never help you and that the voluntary sector is always good - neither of those is true," she says. "Some community groups can be empowering, but others can be restrictive - and those are not the sort of organisations that I would like to see prospering in society. Likewise, the state can be very good at delivering things."

Creasy, who is one of 28 MPs who represent both Labour and the Co-operative Party under an agreement between the two, says she is keen on mutual societies and cooperatives but sceptical about the government's plan to encourage public sector staff to set these up.

"It takes time and capacity to set up an effective mutual, and this won't be possible because of the pace at which public services are being slashed," she says. "I try to live and breathe these values, but I'm talking to people who are afraid they'll have no roofs over their heads and won't be able to feed their families. Asking them to think of themselves as social entrepreneurs and embrace this brave new world without any clarity about what's going to happen next is very difficult."

- This article mistakenly refers to Ovarian Cancer Action but should instead say Target Ovarian Cancer, apologies for any confusion caused.

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