What’s so good about campaigning?

Social Movement

Is campaigning inherently good?

At one of Southwark’s community councils not so long ago, there was some vocal (and visceral) opposition to a modest council proposal to slightly improve cycling provision and safety in a tiny part of the borough.

The residents’ campaign against the proposed change led to it being halted.

You might say that’s pluralism in action. And obviously those people have a right to have their say – even if what is said is not something that you would agree with.

But in the wider scheme of things, how does a bunch of residents in Dulwich Village campaigning to protect the status quo make the world a better place?

Campaigning is under attack

Campaigning is under attack from various sources in the UK – and there is a need to defend it.

But the above example illustrates that the basic premise that ‘all campaigning is good’ is not necessarily the right starting point for making the case.

So that leads to the question, (when) is campaigning a good thing?

We might say that campaigning is a good thing because it can help lead to positive social change by:

• supporting better quality policy making
• animating wider and more active participation in decision-making
• encouraging the formation of bonds and bridges between different groups in society
• transcending short-term electoral considerations
• acting as a countervailing force to (often unaccountable) vested interests
• holding decision makers to account and acting as a check on power
• supporting and strengthening the interests and involvement of disadvantaged and traditionally under-represented groups and communities.

But then we have to recognise that not all campaigning does those things.

Even if we are talking only about campaigns that seek positive social change (leaving aside for a moment how we might define or identify that), there remain some fundamental questions we should be asking ourselves about charity campaigning.

We might be round the table, speaking up for the people we identify as our ‘beneficiaries’. But who’s not at the table? Whose table is it? If we’re not addressing those questions, then it’s hard to say that campaigning is really about challenging and seeking to rebalance existing power relations.

On this, it’s interesting to hear Johnny Chatterton’s analysis (in an past interview for Jim’s podcast) that the need in some campaigning organisations to attract and appeal to their supporters – who tend to be disproportionately well educated, professional, affluent and white – may be affecting whose interests those NGOs end up representing.

This is creating broken feedback loops, where NGOs are concerned with listening and being responsive to supporters rather than the communities that they work with work with.

Hence the finding in NPC’s recent state of the sector report that “There is a real danger that charities becomes trapped in an echo-chamber of existing supporters and networks”.

And if campaigning is just providing a platform for those who already have access and power to further exercise that access and power, then that lays down a fundamental and foundational challenge to the sector and its ways of working.

Recent political shifts, responses to human emergencies like the (ongoing) refugee crisis, and even the rise of peer to peer crowdfunding are demonstrating that unconstituted groups are beginning to bypass the traditional campaigning charities and get out there to fight for themselves. If the sector is going to continue to defend its right to campaign on behalf of ‘beneficiaries’ then organisations need to do more to examine where power and privilege has embedded itself.

Speaking at Losing Control earlier this year, Immy Kaur from The Birmingham Hub referred to embedded power and inequality at the heart of decision making power: “There needs to be a wide-ranging group of people in your leadership, in positions where decisions are made. You can’t retrofit this afterwards. If you start with a homogenous group of people, that is how you’ll continue to grow. These systems perpetuate themselves”.

Immy made a poignant plea that organisations need to look at themselves properly and become the change they are calling for – and that otherwise as a sector we are doomed to perpetuate the cycles of injustice.

Is the sector brave enough to put its money where its mouth is before it starts defending its right to end injustice elsewhere?

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