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Peter Cuthbertson: Review - How to Use Politicians To Get What You Want by Scott Colvin

Peter-cuthbertsonReading Scott Colvin’s excellent new book reminded me of one of the first occasions I ever read a political book: it was Rupert Morris’ The Tories. At this point I hadn’t yet joined my local association in Darlington, so this account of the party and its membership was entirely new to me. Some years later, and now much more of an ‘insider’, I picked up the book again, remembering how much of a gold mine I had found it. This time, I was surprised to find how little he had to say that I hadn’t now experienced first-hand.

I suspect Colvin's book offers the same service to anyone who isn’t an ardent political activist (but it offers plenty to those of us who are, of which more later). This is a fantastic insight into the pressures on, and priorities of, our elected representatives. Obvious as some of it may be to those of us in the Westminster Village, the rest of the population may at times have a need to understand what motivates politicians, and reading a guide like this would save them years of political activism as a means of learning.

The author’s empathy with politicians is the outstanding feature of the book, and Colvin is right to see this as essential to getting politicians to do anything. No one who understands how government in Britain really works believes lurid accounts of laws being made and amended through lobbyists having a brief whisper in the right ear - as if politicians are empty vessels, easy to win around. As the author puts it, “governments do not change their minds because individuals call them up and ask them to”. MPs, MEPs, councillors and special advisors in fact have constituents to defend, beliefs they wish to uphold, and face endless pressure from Whips and local media.

So the book traces these pressures and motivations. It really is almost impossible for anyone with a cause to overestimate the importance of constituents’ opinions to an MP. The book has a great account of how a Commons office really works, and a diary setting out how an average MP’s day is spent. Colvin then sets out how to make the best use of this knowledge for any campaign. He is also right to note the need for a serial campaigner or lobbyist to cultivate a real relationship with the people they hope to influence, rather than simply calling only when they want something.

His practical suggestions on other elected representatives are shrewd. To bring on board MEPs, appeal less to their electoral concerns and more to their desire for some media attention. Get local councillors from different parties competing with one another to help you if your ward is split, he suggests.

To this I would add the importance of ideology. It is not so much that politicians are inflexible dogmatists. But nothing falls flatter than a technocratic argument that fails to engage with the underlying world view of the politician at which it is aimed. How easy it is, for example, to let oneself believe that the consensus of one’s own profession should plainly be government policy towards one’s industry – after all, who could know better than you? But this can be a dangerous and arrogant attitude when it meets with a politician with just as good a reason – a broad and deep political philosophy - for thinking the opposite. People who say they simply have no time for ideology will probably wrestle with this any time they try to influence someone who does have the time. A corollary of this is that an ideologue may often understand better than the undiluted ‘pragmatist’ someone of opposing beliefs to their own – and be more capable of winning them over.

Then there are the little things, like how suspicious politicians rightly are of those who only want to know them after they rise to positions of importance, or how many politicians have phenomenally good memories. Last year, I said hello to one MP who I had spoken to only briefly, most recently when we sat on opposite ends of a table at a wedding five years previously. He instantly remembered my name and where we’d met. I could give other examples.

I imagine I will return most often to the book’s many, many case studies. Rather than give brief and token examples of the points he wishes to illustrate, Colvin goes into great detail on why a great range of campaigns succeeded. It is a shame he included no case studies detailing campaigns that failed because they made some of the mistakes he cautions against.

By contrast, I found myself unpersuaded by the book’s thoughtful defence of lobbying. It is true that the Magna Carta itself provides the “right to petition the government for the redress of grievances” and that in a sense anyone trying to persuading a politician of anything is ‘lobbying’. But defending lobbying according to this very expansive definition does not go far enough for me towards answering the critics of the much more specific form of lobbying whereby some are paid well, based on their knowledge and contacts, to advocate for particular interests. It is the moral responsibility of those of us who work in public affairs to explain why this is justifiable.

I believe the beginning of the answer - beyond upholding lobbying as an exercise of freedom of speech and expression - lies in Colvin’s concern about what an absence of all professional lobbying in Britain would mean. The left would have to worry about the absence of a powerful countervailing force to that natural tendency for the wealthy and influential to get their views known, merely because politicians and media mix with them constantly. The right, meanwhile, would be unlikely to welcome a society in which businesses, facing countless interference by politicians, have no profession to turn to when they wish to answer back effectively and warn politicians of the harm some of their measures could do.

The book is at its most practical in the way it details how ordinary community campaigns can adopt some of the best professional tactics. It sets out how to put together a media grid, how to run a focus group inexpensively, the importance of contact lists. A campaign may be unable to afford to commission its own opinion polls, but it can always use earlier polls commissioned by others, Colvin notes. He has great advice on how to complain effectively, and on whether one should start by aiming to influence one’s ultimate target or by going first for those lower down the hierarchy. The book ends with some striking and optimistic observations on how issue-based campaigns will in the future be able to take advantage of the government’s localism agenda.

The phrase ‘compulsory reading’ is clichéd and (I’ve always thought) somewhat fascist, so I won’t use it to describe this book. But every organisation that makes it its job to influence the decisions of others should buy a copy: having picked the book up, their smarter employees won't be able to put it down.


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