ORGCon 2012: how to lobby your MP

This session was a masterclass in effective lobbying run by Phil Booth and Terri Dowty of truth2power.

The first obvious step in lobbying your MP is to find out who they are and how to contact them. Thanks to the wonderful folk at mysociety this can be done simply by visiting write to them and typing in your postcode.

Write To Them publishes the voting record of each MP along with various statistics about their activity in the House of Commons. For effective lobbying, though, this isn’t particularly useful. What you really want to know is their position on your issue, how they relate to their party on the subject, and why they have been voting a particular way.

Two ports of call you should make are to Ask Aristotle, which lists biographical and constituency information for every MP, and They Work For You (another mysociety site), which records the questions MPs have asked and the speeches they have given in the House of Commons. Bear in mind that your MP may have been approached already by a group with views that oppose your own and this may have informed their thinking or behaviour. Think also about their level of knowledge about your topic. Your lobbying efforts will start from a different place if they’re experts than if they’re laypeople. Last, find out your MP’s “hot buttons” – the topics they talk about frequently and keep coming back to. If you can draw parallels between your aims and these issues your MP is likely to sit up and listen!

Once you’ve armed yourself with as much information as you can gather it’s time to start lobbying your MP. Letters and emails are a good start however it’s much more effective to meet them in person. There are several reasons for this: they’re more likely to remember you, and your message, if they’ve met you; they’ll give your points greater weight and your issue greater consideration since you’ve put more effort into representing your concerns to them; you can gauge their level of understanding more effectively by looking them in the eye than you can by reading their written response; you’ll receive immediate information and feedback; and you can cover a lot more ground during a 15 minute surgery appointment than you can by exchanging written correspondance.

Some tips on how to prepare for the meeting:

  • You should always be speaking about something that you have a genuine concern about, and if possible, you should relate it to your personal experience (even if that’s of just a very small part of the issue at hand.)
  • Avoid getting too emotional or angry. A positive and constructive approach will work better than crazy ranting!
  • Prepare what you are going to say in advance. You can even send your notes to your MP two or three days before you meet them, which allows them to read what you’re going to say and prepare their response, but won’t give them much time to go and look up their party line on the topic. You want to establish their individual position not their party’s.
  • Have a clear objective. It could be as simple as establishing their position and putting it on the record, or you might want to get them to ask a question in parliament, speak to a minister, sign an Early Day Motion or take other action to move the debate in your desired direction.

Lobbying is most effective at the earliest legislative stages. In fact putting your points to your MP before they’ve ever opened their mouth on a subject is the best way of influencing both what they say and how they think about an issue. Once they’ve said something you don’t like, you’re facing an uphill struggle to get them to change direction, as their political opponents are likely to denounce any variance in their stated position as “flip flopping” or “U-turning”. Having said that it’s never too late to start building a relationship with your MP.

If objectionable legislation is already at an advanced stage, or if your MP isn’t responding as you’d wish, you may need to bring to bear other pressures besides lobbying. MPs pay attention to what’s going on in their constituency so indirect efforts can be effective. Is this an issue that throws up a hook for a letter to the local press? Letters pages are very well read! You can also engage with affected social and business groups in the area. Invite these to join you at a subsequent meeting with your MP or to join your campaign in other ways. Petitions and demonstrations can martial the numbers required to effect change even during the latter stages of a bill’s passage through Parliament. Contacting the local council and other political parties in the area can widen the scope of your efforts considerably if they take an interest. Lastly, since Lords are not elected, you can lobby any of them directly. Cross-bench peers are independent of party influences, and if enough can be persuaded to your side of a particular argument, this can be an effective approach. Don’t forget to do your homework, though, in the same way as you did before contacting your MP.

There’s a balance to be struck between impressing your point on your MP, and being so verbose that they start ignoring you. Three or four meetings a year is a good rate to start with, and interspersing these with a couple of letters or emails will help keep you and your issues in your MP’s mind. There are some tips on how to write to your MP on the Open Rights Group wiki.

Lastly, if your MP does what you’ve asked of them, do write and thank them. It keeps the conversation going and tells them you appreciate their efforts too.