Focus: Policy and Politics - Improve your campaigning methods

Nathalie Thomas

Leading politicians have co-operated in research to help lobbyists.

Chancellor Gordon Brown and Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe are among leading politicians to have contributed to new campaigning research produced by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation.

"Campaigning is critical to a healthy democracy," says Brown.

The foundation garnered opinion about the best way charities should approach MPs to coincide with the launch of the Sheila McKechnie Awards today.

The awards offer the opportunity for charities to improve their campaigning skills in a number of areas, including conflict resolution, economic justice and social inclusion.

All of the participants in the research agreed on the importance of campaigning, but there was some division on how best to campaign.

"Campaigners will always be able to access their MPs at a local level, but only a problem that is a national issue will make an impact nationally," Widdecombe advises.

But Nick Clegg, LibDem spokesman on foreign affairs, disagrees. Organisations that campaign on local issues "are taken very seriously by MPs and can make a big impact", he says.

Regardless of whether they take a national or a local approach, campaigners need to think carefully about their methods, according to David Borrow, Labour MP for South Ribble.

He recommends campaigners formulate clear objectives before approaching MPs, because few like answering questionnaires.

Nor are vast petitions the way forward, Widdecombe adds. "Standard postcard campaigns in which we receive the same postcard with individual addresses I take a bit more seriously," she says. "Individually crafted letters that come in on the same subject I take very seriously indeed."

The strong impact that individual campaigners can make was another message to emerge from the research. However, Sir Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, warned that big campaigns should not be sneered at.

"What the individual can't do is sustain a campaign over years - and some things need years," he says. "Africa needs years and decades."

This advice has been heeded by the Trade Justice Movement, which is hoping to repeat its record-breaking mass lobby of 2002, when 12,000 campaigners lobbied 346 MPs.

This year's event, which aims to lobby 500 MPs, will be held on 2 November - a day when most MPs will attend Parliament for Prime Minister's Question Time.

The hundreds of organisations involved in the Make Poverty History campaign have urged their supporters to contact their local MPs ahead of time, using a mass lobby pack containing contact information and a sample letter.

On the day, supporters are colour-coded and organised according to region and constituency, allowing MPs to find their constituents more easily.

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