Members of Parliament are often described as democratic representatives, setting out the views of their constituents in Westminster, the mother of all parliaments. As elected officials it is vital they are well informed, with a broad knowledge on a vast range of subjects to properly contribute to the legislative process. However, for MPs this means juggling party, constituents and innumerable time pressures, while trying to fully understand and engage with a subject.
The golden opportunity for those trying to influence political opinion is to identify the point where an MP is decision forming: potentially aware of an issue or willing to consider how it could affect their constituents, the country, or, perhaps their own standing.
Ideally, this should be well in advance of any legislation – once drafted it’s far harder to table amendments or gather significant opposition. Of course the majority of legislation will be on the radar for a significant period of time thanks to advanced notice within the Queen’s Speech, but influencing the nuances of a Bill offers far shorter timescales. Public affairs professionals come into their own gauging when to act through the often complex and convoluted processes that make up the passage of bills.
Identifying the right Members to engage is sometimes tricky – ministers are sometimes beholden to civil service advisors, but it’s always worth pushing if you feel a certain MP can be useful. Relevant Select Committee and APPG members tend to be the most engaged and willing to meet while identifying local angles can tap into a wealth of support.
The first step is to set up a meeting. This is not always an easy task and it is essential that any meeting request has the right signposting of the issue, its relevance and a clear meeting request. Some MPs offer only 15 minutes on the logic that it’s five minutes more than a doctor’s appointment, so making your time count is key. A briefing note internally and to the MP beforehand has the dual benefit of laying the framework of conversation, while allowing the MP to feel well informed enough to pretend to be a bit of an expert in the future. Rather than demanding change it is important to lay out an issue and draw the conversation towards the solution. Often enough, a meeting will end with a sense that ‘something’ should be done. Unfortunately, unless there has been some preparation as to what that thing should be, expectations are likely not to be met. A clearly defined call to action is essential if you want an MP to walk away with any sense of purpose.
Once you have established an ally – and, of course, not everyone you speak to will become one – you can nurture your support base. In the Chamber, committee rooms, ministerial offices, and press, a strong supporter can push your issue right up the agenda when supplied with the right tools and guidance.
The art of public affairs is to make an issue clear, relevant and actionable. Manage these and you have a real chance at making a change.
Kate Turner, Account Manager