“Brexit” – the lazy excuse campaigners use for not achieving change

You’re in a campaign strategy meeting, discussing your campaigns for the coming year.

To kick the meeting off, you start thinking about the context you’re working in.

You stand at a flip chart, filling in your PEST analysis.

“Brexit”, someone says.

Everyone nods and mutters sagely, “Mm, yes, Brexit.”

People exchange knowing looks, as if they all understand precisely how “Brexit” is impacting your work.

And without further discussion, you move on to all those other external opportunities and threats that will shape the year ahead.

But …

Are we allowing “Brexit” to be a lazy excuse for why we’re not campaigning?

Or for why we’re failing to achieve change?

“We can’t possibly launch a campaign on X — the Government aren’t interested in anything except Brexit!”

“There’s no wonder our campaign failed to achieve Y — the Government are only focused on Brexit!”

These are lazy excuses.

And yet, Brexit has had an impact.

And this requires us to really think about the challenges that Brexit is presenting for how we campaign — and what can we do to tackle this.

Challenge 1: Less opportunity for change?

Brexit has undoubtedly squeezed some of the space for organisations to achieve change.

Emily Andrews at the Institute for Government has catalogued in this blog any number of domestic issues that the government has kicked into the long grass – partly due to Brexit.

What are change-makers to do about this?

Take an issue like social care. It is bleeding obvious that action needs to be taken to deliver high quality, affordable care for older people.

But the Green Paper that is meant to provide answers to this problem has been delayed and delayed, despite many campaigners pressing for action.

As someone who launched a campaign on this issue at Which?, it has been frustrating to see a lack of action.

But – the delay also presents opportunities.

It allows campaigners to get their ducks in a row and come up with solutions to the social care conundrum that others can coalesce around.

It also gives campaigners the opportunity to do the hard work of shifting public attitudes and bringing others behind their campaign calls.

Shelter have done this smartly with their new campaign on social housing.

They used the time presented by Brexit to establish a commission on the future of social housing.

They got people across the political spectrum on board. Came up with their policy solutions and campaign asks – and now they’re good to go.

Meanwhile on other issues, it’s worth questioning whether Brexit really has squeezed the space for government action at all.

Take the environment. Action of the magnitude needed to tackle the climate crisis set out in the IPCC report may not be coming. But that hasn’t stopped Michael Gove pushing forward issues that have been on the green agenda for some time.

And while some big picture, macro changes may be off the agenda – smart, targeted, micro changes can also be advanced.

Look at the win achieved by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute and others to introduce a compulsory breathing space for those in problem debt.

Or think about the recent changes in the law that have been achieved by campaigners, such as the Bill to make upskirting a criminal offence – or the Bill banning fees for new tenants.

Space for change still exists – but we have to be much cannier about how we find it and tap into it.

And where it doesn’t exist, we need to use the time Brexit has given us. This may be to rethink and come up with new solutions. Or it could be to shift public attitudes to create the space for change in the longer term.

Challenge 2: A new strategy for change?

“The obsession with Westminster and Whitehall … is not driving the changes we need. We can’t do it any more, because it is not working.”

So said Shelter boss, Polly Neate, a few months ago.

I have a lot of sympathy for this view. If Ministers’ and MPs’ time is increasingly taken up by Brexit, then it should force us to shift our strategies for change.

For some, this will be about moving our attention to businesses and how we can change their practices.

Take Leonard Cheshire’s campaign on step free access at stations. This is deliberately targeted at train companies and not the government.

Or think about the way that Citizens Advice have tackled the penalty that vulnerable people face with their insurance and telecoms bills. They’ve focused on the power of regulators and the competition authorities, not Westminster and Whitehall.

Others are spending more time thinking about how we can be the change – and how to shift public attitudes – rather than the tried and tested routes of influencing institutional power.

For example, the increased interest in going vegan or giving up alcohol can be much more than fads for January. They can be a boon for green and health campaigners, who want the public to be a bigger part of the fight to tackle climate change or obesity.

Challenge 3: New targets for change?

Back to Westminster and the turbulence of Brexit has led to much more chopping and changing at a ministerial level, which obviously has an impact on our ability to achieve change.

The negatives are that campaigners spend months building good relations with a key Minister to suddenly find that they’ve resigned over a difference with the PM on Brexit.

The upside is that campaigners frustrated with a Minister blocking their agenda or pursuing policies that they disagree with, can suddenly find them out of the door and replaced with someone they can work with (I’m looking at you, Esther McVey).

The problem is that this rapid turnover isn’t just happening at a ministerial level – it’s also happening with civil servants, who are so vital when you’re trying to make technical changes happen.

I don’t have an easy solution for this. Brexit or no Brexit, changes in key personnel always have a significant impact on your ability to achieve change.

This makes it vital that campaigners don’t have a narrow strategy of targeting a sole Minister with a discreet, behind the scenes approach.

You want to be in a position where your cause has so much support that it doesn’t matter who the new Minister is – they’ll automatically back your campaign.

Challenge 4: A public appetite for change?

These are exciting and challenging times for those of us who want to see people powered campaigns driving forward social change.

An increasing number of people appear to be getting involved in movements for change and the political process.

But we’re also witnessing greater polarisation and less tolerance for different points of view.

And there are significant sections of society who remain as hard to reach as ever. In fact, they may have become even harder to engage as Brexit fatigue leads them to switch off from any appeal for action.

Much of this obviously predates Brexit. But change-makers are still struggling to adapt as we consider how to better involve, engage and mobilise people to be a part of our campaigns.

And as our issues are fought across social media, campaigners are coming under attack from their opponents and from trolls seeking to undermine them and their cause.

I’ve heard this directly from campaigners over recent weeks:

“What can I do about my campaign being attacked on social media?”

“How do I ensure that our campaign isn’t contributing to greater polarisation?”

“How do I move supporters on from ranting about an issue to taking action?”

“How do I compete for activist attention with the draw of the People’s Vote or Vote Leave campaign?”

Some campaigners that I’ve met are keen to learn from approaches such as Sarah Corbett’s gentle protest approach of craftivism.

Others want to take a more combative approach.

Many more are lost at sea — and have been for some time.

Brexit has compounded this, requiring many organisations and campaigners to rethink their approach to people powered change — as well as the skills they need to be able to succeed in this new world.

Challenge 5: A Brexit approach to change?

A whole other blog (or probably a book) could be written about what campaigners can learn from the referendum campaigns and now from the post-referendum campaigns to stop Brexit or make it happen.

What is clear is that charity campaigners are pretty absent from the debate.

Instead we need to look to political parties, grassroots movements and business lobby groups to learn what’s working and what isn’t.

I dream of having time to do a proper unpacking of Tim Shipman’s “All Out War” to draw out the lessons from Dominic Cummings and Craig Oliver’s respective approaches — and what it means for the rest of us obsessed with making change. (Tom has a micro summary of some of the lessons here.)

In the meantime, we need to keep a sharp eye on what these campaigns are doing now to see if there are things we can steal, things to avoid or new trends emerging that we can apply.

Following Tom Baker’s twitter is a good place to start (as he shares lots of interesting tactics and tools).

But it is also worth us thinking about who you know and can talk to that are directly involved in the battle of Brexit, so that you can get their insights for your own campaigns.