Community Websites: a new space for activism?

While much has been written about the power of Facebook, and the impact of other social media tools in campaigning, another growing phenomena, that I’ve seen much less written about is the growth (or perhaps resurgence) of community websites, one of the most high-profile of which is Mumsnet, which seems to be in the news almost every week at the moment.
I don’t have any reason to spend any time on Mumsnet, but a quick visit to the site reveal that its a community of thousands of parents, not just talking about parenting but increasingly discussing a whole range of other issues (it has a very active election section). It’s not the only site like it, some of them are super-local, others national, but they all draw together people who share something in common but often seem to flourish into broader discussions.
Ben Furber has an excellent blog on LabourList about what this might mean for the political parties in the upcoming general election, but campaigning organisations should be considering the implications for them.
The traditional way of organising campaigning is changing to a space where people share the same interests, views and outlook in a virtual space. For campaigners, here are a few exciting challenges and opportunities that I think they presents.
Opportunities
  • To reach more (and new) activists, by dramatically reducing the barriers to entry, suddenly you don’t need to come along to a meeting, you can just log on and get involved. Equally you can spend as long as you like observing the discussions before you get involved.
  • To allow people to share their campaigning experiences with each other in real time, what they’ve found works, what doesn’t work, encouraging those involved to provide advice to newcomers.
  • To communicate rapid changes in strategy, no longer do organisations need to wait for the next mailing slot to update campaigners, the next campaign action or message can be communicated in real time.
  • To engaging people in the development of the journey campaign, suddenly individuals are sharing ideas about targets and tactics, trying them out and reporting back what works. It provide a good platform to crowd source of ideas, and then encourage others to adopt the most effective.
Challenges
  • To let go of the message, instead of the traditional campaigning method which sees the centre control the communications and asks, those involved will want to shape, change and interpret the message, suggest their own tactics, which might not always be seen as the most effective by the ‘professionals’.
  • To move beyond communities beyond a single issue focus – the strength of these sites is that people who join them have something in common, and go to them for community with those like them. The challenge for organisations working on other issues outside of this will be to get these communities to adopt their campaigns.
    For example the Mumsnet website,already has an active campaign page, most on issues of direct relevance to parents (like breastfeeding, miscarridge, and the ‘Million Mums’ campaign on maternal health).

Getting to know the Conservatives

Whatever happens in the upcoming General Election (and as a personal disclaimer at this point I’m doing what I can to get as many Labour MPs elected) it’s clear that while many campaigners have got comfortable working with a Labour government, but know less about how to effectively influence the Conservative party.

Here are my 3 suggestions to campaigners wanting to get to know the party that might form the next government.

1 – Get the daily lowdown on what’s happening
Signing up for the Conservative Home daily e-mails is the best place to get the intelligence on what MPs, councillors and activists are thinking and doing.
A day doesn’t seem to go by without the site featuring an announcement from a front-bench minister or the release of a new report or study. A valuable investment of 5 minutes each day and it costs nothing.
For other useful Conservative blogs to look at have a look at the top 100 right-of-centre blogs as voted by the readers of Iain Dale.

2 – Get to know the key players and who influences them
Being able to do an effective power analysis is central to good campaigning, and once again the people behind Conservative Home have excelled themselves producing this excellent wall chart which helps you understand who’s who in the Conservative Party. If you’ve got more money to spend, they’ll also provide you with a whole host of other useful resources.
Useful books to read include the very accessible ‘Cameron and the Rise of the New Conservatives‘ by Francis Elliot, the more academic ‘The Conservatives under David Cameron: Built to Last?‘ edited by Simon Lee and ‘Cameron on Cameron‘ by Dylan Jones.

3 – Find out about the fresh intake of MPs
Lots has been written that one of the defining features of the next Parliament will be the large number of new MPs. The Conservative website has a decent list of all its PPC, and a number of polling companies have put together reports profiling those that are most likely to get elected, like this one from Insight PA.
Even better more and more are embracing social media and have their own blogs, facebook pages and twitter accounts (here is a list from tweetminster). A quick search and you can find out all sorts about what they think on your campaign issue.

Campaigning in 2015

What might campaigning look like in 5 years time? NCVO have set out to answer the question in their recent paper ‘Future Focus’.

It’s an interesting paper, and its a useful exercise to take a step back and consider some of the broader trends that influence our campaigning.

The introduction argues that the context for campaigning could change significantly under the next government, as we see a change of government, new MPs and potentially a different culture amongst decision makers towards campaigning. Only time will tell on that.

The paper, produced by NCVO’s ‘Third Sector Foresight’ team then argues that there will be 6 drivers that will change campaigning in the next 5 years. Below I’ve summarised the arguments the paper puts forwards, I hope to add my own reflections in the next few days.

Driver 1 – Growth of consumer activism
We’re seeing a blur between lifestyle choices and what has traditionally been perceived a ‘campaigning’. With people increasingly taking ‘me’ actions, like boycotting products at the expense of ‘we’ actions like demonstrations. The paper argues that in a ‘time poor’ society these are easier to fit into people’s lives.

Driver 2 – More fluid activism
People wish to engage in a broader range of issues, moving regularly from one cause and organisation to another. This means some of the more traditional membership models that campaigning organisations have employed may no longer be viable. People are less likely to feel affiliated to a cause or a political ideology.

Driver 3 – Growth of New Technology
E-campaigning reaches more people, its easier to get involved in, but it also raises the number of people you need to get involved to get noticed (does it? I’d argue if you’re more creative you can still make your point). Moreover the collaborative nature of the web challenges the more traditional hierarchical structures of many campaigning organisations. People organise themselves they don’t need someone to do it for them.

Driver 4 – Professionalisation
The push from funders to make campaigning more effective, means that people are learning a set of skills rather than being compelled by an issue. Some argue this is detracting from the radicalism once found in movement. More funding is now available for campaign training/capacity building.

Driver 5 – Increase in competition and coalitions
The sector is experiencing a growth in single-issue campaigns, and technology makes it easier for more players to get involved. The growth of campaigns like Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ have started to blur public understanding of the issue, and encourages short-term engagement in issues. Trend that the private sector is increasingly collaborating with VSOs (voluntary sector organisations).

Driver 6 – Marginalisation of dissent
More laws and increased surveillance make campaigning harder to do. On the one hand there is a growing awareness that non-violent direct action can get media coverage that can provide a seat at the table, but one the other many organisations adopting a more ‘insider’ approach as the current government has made it easier to influence policy.