Challenging community campaigns

In which Stuart Bourne ponders exactly what it takes for a community campaign to be successful..

You see them all the time. Posters in your neighbour’s window, headlines in the local paper, and group requests all over social media. You may also have been involved in one. Local community campaigns have been around since politics began, but just how effective are they?

Well that largely depends on what their goal is. If the campaign is to raise funds, clean up an area or rescue a building, then in my experience they can be hugely successful. As an example, St Margaret’s church in Rainham was broken into just before Christmas. A stained-glass window was broken, and the thieves caused thousands of pounds worth of damage. A crowd funding page was setup to help with the costs and to assist in improving the security. There was a surge of support and to date they have raised nearly £3000. Here you can see a community rallying together to solve a clear goal. 

Where the outcome is less reliable are campaigns where the goal can only be solved through political means. These are the campaigns that are often to save a government project, or more often to stop a local building project. Examples of these in Medway are the fight to save a children’s home in Upnor, and the campaign to stop a large housing project in Lower Rainham. Both of these will be ultimately decided by Medway Council, and therefore fall into the political world. And it is because they have fallen into this complicated world, they can be incredibly frustrating and sometimes unsuccessful.

This frustration stems firstly from the fact that the campaigns are constrained by the processes and timescales of government. And for anyone with any experience with government, this can be laborious, irrational and downright unfathomable. Budgets are set years in advance, with budget meetings months apart. The building planning process can take months to negotiate, and if decisions are appealed in court it can even take years for a decision to be made. This is very difficult for people used to instant gratification that is the hallmark of modern life. In most campaigns, they have an initial surge of membership and activities. Lots of meetings, lots of pictures in the press, and then some fun events. Then the months tick by, people get bored and the enthusiasm dies.

Secondly, campaigns do not understanding who is responsible for the decision and therefore who needs to have the pressure put on them. They sometimes think a few articles in the newspaper and social media will create a big enough media storm to resolve it all. But these storms die quickly and go unnoticed by people. Maybe the campaign then writes a stern letter to their local MP, but how much power does a MP have on local issues, not much I’m sure you know. The best case scenario is your MP is a great local leader with healthy relationships with the local council. But this is a rarity when both the MP and Council are of the same party, and near impossible when they are of different parties. Even if the decision lays with central government the MP may have very little influence. A MP sitting on the opposition backbenches is unlikely to influence a government minister. You only have to look at Heathrow and the issue of the third runway to see this. A well organised campaign, with support from local MPs and the Mayor, but was still ignored by the government of the same political party. 

The final and most important factor is that campaigns normally do not use the greatest power that they have over the politicians. The power to collectively vote against them and their party at the next election. Community campaigns are fantastic at bringing all kinds of people together, but this is for a specific reason and they are often drawn from across the political spectrum. Coupled with the long timescales and confusion of who is responsible, people can forget the issue when voting and revert to their traditional voting habit. Democracy only works when the voters hold to account the actions of the politicians.

So I suppose you’re are sitting back now, saying to yourself ‘well that’s it, I’m going to stop caring and just watch Strictly on the TV’, but that is not the purpose of me writing this. You can still create a successful campaign if you focus of the three problem areas. You must understand the bureaucratic processes that you are trying to work with, identify the important milestones and timescales involved, and make sure all members of your campaign understand that this can be a long drawn out process. Next you need to identify the key decision makers involved and what pressure you can place on them. Finally and most importantly, you make it clear to those decision makers and all those involved in your campaign, that any results from the final outcome will be reflected at the ballot box.

But whatever you take from this, I would always encourage people to get involved in community campaigns. There are so many worthwhile projects in Medway that are in desperate need for dedicated people to help. More than ever they need help to keep the pressure on those making decisions to respect the views of the community.  And in a world where neighbours barely speak, campaigns allow local people to meet and get to know each other. You may get to know other amazing people. People like yourself, people that are trying to change the world for the better. So let 2020 be the year where we all roll up our sleeves and get involved. Then we all can look back in 2021 and say ‘That’s what we achieved!

Stuart Bourne became politically active in 2005, helping to re-elect the Chatham & Aylesford MP Jonathan Shaw. He became the branch secretary for Chatham Labour Party, and stood as a Labour candidate for the local council elections in 2007 and 2011. He moved away from Medway in 2012, but have now moved back in 2019 as a Liberal Democrat.

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