km-headshotGuest blogger, Katharine Mansell attended our debate last week on “Is Digital Campaigning Drowning Democracy?” at the House of St Barnabas. Below Katherine tells us what she thinks about the conversation on digital campaigning held between 45 attendees, Charles Walker MP, Baroness Deech, Tom Bage, Head of Communication at Change.org and Esther Foreman, Chief Exec of The Social Change Agency.

Esther Foreman can confirm that mass email campaigns drive politicians crazy.

I went to a panel discussion on Esther’s latest report, Shouting down the house, a much needed exploration of campaigning in the digital age.

The sheer volume of emails are seen as a nuisance and as ‘not real engagement’ – a sentiment echoed by the two politicians on the panel: Baroness Deech DBE and Charles Walker OBE and MP for Broxbourne.

Regardless of whether you agree, they both have a record of engaging and campaigning on issues, despite having minimal, or no office support, so you shouldn’t dismiss their views.

They say that mass actions do not allow them to engage in a subject. They feel bombarded, bullied, shouted at and that their jobs are misunderstood by the general public.

The report highlights that lived experiences are what makes the difference when you want your MP to hear your perspective on an issue.

A personal letter could have more impact than 1000 identikit emails.

But we are all bombarded with demands on our time. We are all deluged by information – should our politicians be treated differently?

The lived experience also affects members of the public, sometimes to take a mass email action.

Speaking personally, I’m likely to respond to social and environmental justice issues, and I would take action when asked on campaigns from contesting welfare cuts, to opposing planning applications for fracking.

I wouldn’t claim to know the fine details of the policy but my world view might make me take a mass email action using someone’s words that I believe is researched and useful to the cause.

Because we’re ALL bombarded.

So I place a degree of trust that charities and mobilization agencies such as Change.org (represented on the panel by Tom Bage) have done some of that vital thinking on my behalf.

To the politicians on the receiving end of thousands of emails, this feels too broad to take me seriously. Whereas I think these issues can logically cluster together because to me, they are linked.

If MPs want us to better understand their political remit and responsibilities, then they should also understand why and how people campaign. Depending on our available time and knowledge, we might sign a mass email, write a personal letter or start our own grassroots action.

Speaking professionally, I think we should consider why we’re mobilizing people and what we want to get from it. The most successful campaigns I’ve worked on have been where we have tried to bring relevant politicians with us from the start: asking for and empowering them to be part of the solution.

Shouting down the House observes that politicians need to be better resourced to adapt to changing technology. Then they could interact more meaningfully with issues, organisations and individuals throughout the campaign lifecycle which would help them feel less bombarded.

I can’t help but think that the constant crisis narrative in our media makes it feel like the divide between the public and politicians is greater than it really is.

More resources could help move politicians to a more visible, proactive form of democracy outside of the Westminster bubble.

Shouting down the House raised some tough questions about where the responsibilities of MPs and Lords versus charities and individuals lie, when it comes to useful, respectful debate. It also highlighted tactics used in campaigns I’ve been part of and made me consider why they worked so well.

While I think mass emails still have their place in the toolkit, this is a report for people who want to run sophisticated and impactful campaigns.

Thanks very much to Esther for getting the campaign sector talking and to the panel for being so open.

Katharine Mansell is the Media and External Affairs Manager International Institute for Environment and Development. She writes here in her own capacity.