Having woken early, I decided to tackle the manifesto mail mountain piling up on the kitchen table. Fellow candidates will know what I mean.
Every day the post brings more heavy envelopes, each with its manifesto and covering letter. From Alzheimers to zoo welfare, via rail, small businesses and woodlands, hardly any topic is unaddressed. Even before the envelope is opened, the postmark carries the logo that tells the tale: stroke, prostate cancer, diabetes, dementia… I feel better already.
There is a serious point here. All these causes matter greatly to the people backing them, and most are genuinely mainstream issues of concern about which MPs should be informed. Just as many voters seize on what they see as their once-in-cycle chance to lobby their would-be MPs, so the pressure groups rightly want to highlight their issues to candidates. It shows their own supporters that they are doing their job; and shows candidates that there is backing for that issue. Plus many candidates will welcome a briefing on an issue that matters to them or has particular resonance in their local area – and it’s not always possible to know in advance what those will be. So I do understand why pressure groups do it. But my advice would be, don’t.
A special prize goes to the organisation who, in the 2005 election, sent every candidate an A3 glossy in a cardboard box; all over the country, candidates were taking precious time out to traipse to their nearest Post Office to pick up this package. Nul points.
Any candidate with a chance of winning will be spending every hour they can spare (and some they can’t) raising their local profile; getting their campaign literature out; canvassing voters; and recruiting more helpers for all of the above. The more time they spend reading manifestos, the less likely they are to win – so assuming pressure groups want to be influencing future MPs, it’s not best use of anyone’s time. And is it best use of money to send manifestos to all the candidates in every seat when, by definition, only one will be elected? A friend who works for Kidney Wales agrees – they won’t be troubling candidates this side of the election.
Talking of time, then there’s the manifesto launch circuit. Many groups launch their manifesto or pledges with a reception in Westminster, a chance to network over a glass of wine and rub shoulders with the already-elected. I could probably have spent virtually every evening in March doing just that. As it was, polite apologies and an offer to meet up after the election are the order of the day.
So how does a pressure group reach candidates before the election? If you are going to write to candidates now, the best approach is to say something like – we know you are too busy to read lots or come to a party, so here is a handy card with our 3 points plus a phone number/weblink to find out more.
Three other ways work well (for me at least):
Firstly, constituency-based events or visits, with the obligatory photo-op, and a face-to-face briefing on the issues. I’ve visited a range of organisations based in Islington, including RNID, National Deaf Children’s Society, the National Federation of Roofing Contractors, and Unicef-UK. The British Lung Foundation have an active Breathe Easy Islington group it’s been a real pleasure to meet. I’d include in this category yesterday’s visit to the Tubelines depot at Edgware to be briefed on the Northern Line upgrade works – something really useful.
Secondly, campaigns based on individual emails from constituents. Yes, it’s timeconsuming to reply to each one, and yes, the flood in the inbox can be as daunting as the pile on the doormat. But with the emails there is real interaction with real constituents: a chance to gauge what issues matter to them. A short email saying why an issue matters to that voter, with a weblink to the organisation’s site for more information, and an opportunity to respond with specific pledges or views – that’s real engagement and better accountability.
Thirdly, the organisations who get in early and brief candidates at party conference. Shelter, Vote Cruelty Free and the Royal British Legion are among the far-sighted groups who did just that.
Meanwhile back home there was one lovely surprise in the mail mountain – a chocolate bar and stressbuster squeeze-toy from one imaginative group. Yes, it’s the Campaign for Gender Balance, supporting women LibDem candidates. They get my vote!