Brian Lamb: Campaigners against cuts will have to do more than sell a negative

The consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board says vision is required

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

It is inevitable during these difficult economic times that many campaigners are reaching for the ‘no cuts’ banners and trying to protect hard-won rights.

The disappearance of the much-loved local hospital, library or benefit entitlement is bound to arouse strong emotions for campaigners to tap into and present opportunities to mobilise public opinion.

The overturning of government policies, such as the recent U-turn on the proposed sale of national woodlands, are the exception rather than the rule. But episodes like this demonstrate that a combination of intelligent use of public pressure and private influencing can still reap major dividends.

Most local campaigns, however, are  attritional – the equivalent of trench warfare. There are as many defeats as there are victories in what often turns out to be a zero-sum game. For every service saved, something else has to go.

This is because these campaigns are nearly always fought out within the logic of the prevailing narrative about why cuts are necessary, or – to use the communications jargon – the overall framing of the issue.

This has protesters permanently on the back foot, skewered on the hook of "what is it you would do differently if the money was not there?" It’s not an unreasonable question. It was, after all, the well-known community activist Saul Alinsky who said the price of every campaign attack is a constructive solution.

Campaigners also struggle against an often unacknowledged problem that affects this kind of campaigning: namely, that it’s difficult to sell people a negative. This has deep roots in the way people respond to messages and values.

Campaigns might need to start with mobilising against immediate threats. But if they are to build long-term constituencies for change and challenge the way things are done, simply sticking with what we have will not work in the long run.

Campaigners too often become trapped in defending arrangements that are less than perfect when the better route would be to set out a new vision for the future – fighting to keep the best, but also including plans to improve and innovate, albeit within tight spending limits.

Campaigners need a vision of what would work better, not least in times of uncertainty. Take the example of climate change. Visions of climate heaven have proved to be far greater motivators for action than telling people they are going to climate hell, which simply convinces them the problem is so huge that they can’t possibly make a difference.  

Visions appeal to our values and aspirations and motivate people to take action. Scary facts and doom-related consequences ultimately make people feel disempowered and deter them from getting involved. And, shocking as it might seem, it isn’t facts that swing most people’s opinions on an issue: it’s resonance with values and aspiration.

The challenge for campaigners is to align the easy part – outrage about the loss of cherished services and entitlements – with a longer-term vision of what could be different, and make it chime with common values. A more empowering vision of public services and why entitlements matter needs to be brought to the centre stage. How this can be delivered in a period of austerity is the question to which campaigners need to start directing their energies.

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