This article is from the November issue of Total Politics
They said that 150,000 people across 150 swing seats decided the last election. Yet when two million marched in protest against the Iraq war, what was the result? Nothing happened. In many western democracies today there is a growing disconnect between people and politicians. Voters often feel powerless, disenfranchised and, frankly, conned. But while membership of political parties declines, membership of single-issue, direct action groups and e-campaigns continues to rise. No one can say that people are not passionate about politics.
As political campaigning evolves, the race to harness this power is on, and the People’s Pledge is trying to take the lead. We employ a ground-breaking campaigning model that can be applied to many causes – in this case the aim is to force a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. MPs who sign-up pledge to support a referendum and vote for one in Parliament. This pledge is shown on video, available on our website. Members of the public who sign up activate a groundswell of movement at constituency level to vote en masse for an MP or opposing candidate who has backed the pledge. The more candidates signing up the better, so as to increase the likelihood of electing a pro-referendum MP. The idea is to use maximum force against a moveable object.
After only a few months of campaigning we have 82,000 signatories and over 6,000 constituency activists – the largest mobile network of supporters ever amassed for an EU referendum − with more than 50 MPs signed up, and interest increasing week upon week.
The model has three principles. Firstly, the campaign platform is party neutral; all party and none. The common bond is a democratic drive to bridge the gap between people and politicians to “let the people decide”. Those who have signed the pledge − MPs, candidates and constituents − come from across the political spectrum and both sides of the EU debate. Seeing is believing: who would have thought Daniel Hannan and Bob Crow would ever share the same platform? Or Keith Vaz and Douglas Carswell?
Our unique forensic campaigning strategy really sets us apart. Supporters sign up at our website, or fill out and return the leaflets we distribute across the country. They submit their name, postcode and email address. That’s all we need. We aim to ask for less but give more in return.
Working off these postcodes, pledgers’ details are automatically allotted to their constituency where they are added together with thousands of other constituents who have signed up, each of whom can see the total number of signatories in their own constituency. This total is compared against their MP’s majority. You are also shown your MP’s individual pledge page, and can track how they have voted in Parliament on a referendum and on related EU issues. We monitor the politicians so you don’t have to.
Direct mailing and email marketing software are used to target individual constituencies. Where an MP refuses to sign the pledge, supporters are encouraged to ramp up their campaigning activity against them. As supporters see their numbers tick up towards their MP’s majority, the pressure increases. If the MP doesn’t sign and the numbers of those constituents signing the pledge reaches critical mass then the MP may lose their seat. It is as simple as that. If an opposing parliamentary candidate signs the pledge then in theory the block vote will switch to them.
Will it work? Do the maths: if the two million Iraq war protestors had signed a pledge using our model, with an average of 3,000 people per constituency voting as a block, they may have unseated every pro-war MP with a majority of less than 6,000.
We utilise online media, but unlike other campaigns this is not the sum total of our activity. In order for the campaign to grow organically we provide the means for our activists to campaign in their constituency, from handing out leaflets to collecting pledges on sign-up forms. Our model provides a single point of impact for communication technology, and the evidence shows that our members respond to our communications and relish the chance to flex their muscles.
Some say we are another petition, but we see a petitioning as a means waiting for an end. By bringing signatories together at constituency level to vote as a block, our campaign is the quantum leap that links the petition to the polling booth.
Constituents in the past have acted as sole lobbyists, but with no levers or influence. You write to your MP or visit his surgery to make your case individually. MPs have told constituents that they support a referendum but in Parliament vote the opposite way. This level of accountability just doesn’t cut it, and the public know it. Our model breaks this stalemate by providing a massive lever for a block vote in each constituency and a devastating incentive for MPs and their staff to listen and act.
This leads to the third part of the model. Any campaign driven by democracy must also be about accountability and we must be careful to ensure that every MP and candidate who signs the pledge honours it. The loss of credibility for an MP who breaks this will be damaging in the extreme. How many MPs would willingly walk a mile in Nick Clegg’s shoes? Break the pledge and you risk four or five years of bad press and a very tough time at both national and – critically – local levels, followed by the likelihood of being voted out the next time round.
The pledge concept, carried out at constituency level, provides an impetus for MPs to support the cause. Even the harshest whip realises that an MP can’t defy 4,000 voters and with the new boundary reviews and the loss of 50 seats, being a good constituency MP has never been more important.
The success of the People’s Pledge and its innovative campaign strategy is attracting attention. We have hit the ground running in ten marginal constituencies and believe that by 2015 there will be dozens with over 4,000 pledge signatories in each. We already have more sign-ups than the MP’s actual majority in 14 such constituencies.
New technologies all provide a voice, but even when we think we are on the edge of a political earthquake, our political class remains unmoved. Even one of the most effective campaigns to date, 38 Degrees, may fall into the same old trap – if you can’t budge an MP, your hands slip from the lever. The People’s Pledge places voters’ hands back on those levers of power.
Christopher Bruni-Lowe is co-founder of the People’s Pledge, www.peoplespledge.org