Working in constituencies is the key to influencing MPs

Westminster has become a crowded environment for charities, with numerous organisations campaigning and competing for MPs' time. How can charities best navigate this difficult landscape and get their voices heard?
Heather Sturgess and Fiona Wallace

It is set to be a difficult year for charities in terms of campaigning and influencing parliament. In our research with MPs, we have seen growing criticism from Conservative MPs about the role of charities in the political process. Add to this the countless Brexit negotiations that we can expect in the year ahead. A further distraction will be the changes to constituency boundaries as MP’s seats are redrawn or removed.

Last month in the Charity Parliamentary Monitor, we asked MPs about their views towards working with charities and what types of interaction with charities are resonating with them. So how can charities best navigate this difficult landscape and get their voices heard at Westminster?

MPs across all parties value and rely on charity research and support

Despite increasing criticism from MPs about the role of charities in parliament, two-thirds of MPs (66%)find the research and support that charities provide vital to their work. It’s clear that MPs value the evidence and briefings charities provide, which can feed into parliamentary debates and policy-making.

MPs often recall when they have received research-focussed briefings from charities, with one Labour MP in January’s wave of our CPM research citing ‘Good research and reports’ as a reason for deeming a certain charity effective. The timing of these briefings is also important, with another MP citing ‘timely and well researched briefings’ as a reason for a charity having impressed them.  

Gain traction with Conservative MPs by working with them in the constituency

Westminster has become a crowded environment for charities to influence MPs, with more organisations campaigning and competing for MPs’ time. Our latest data from our research with MPs found that over half of MPs (57%) prefer to work with charities in their constituency rather than in Parliament.

This is particularly key for those trying to impress Conservative MPs, who are notoriously hard to reach. In our research with MPs, Conservatives generally score prompted charities lower for effectiveness than their Labour counterparts do, and on average are less likely to say that they support charity campaigns. They are also less enthusiastic about the very concept of charities working in Westminster, with just under ¼ of Conservative MPs stating that charities should not campaign in Parliament.

Interestingly, a massive 72% of Conservative MPs said they prefer to work with charities in their constituency rather than in Parliament. Local campaigning appears to be the way forward for those seeking to influence Conservative backbenchers, and may well be the most effective way to achieve support amongst this group.

MPs in marginal seats also value the local approach

MPs in marginal seats are another group that will be particularly receptive to a local approach. From my experience volunteering for an MP with a small majority they were particularly focused on local matters and constituent issues. They were acutely aware that working hard for constituents and prioritising their concerns could mean the difference between electoral success and defeat.

There are 56 seats where the sitting MP has a majority of less than 5%. Charities could look at ensuring their communications with these MPs have a distinct local focus.

Constituency considerations may be particularly prominent for more and more MPs since the publication of the proposed boundary changes. Many MPs will find their seat changing, meaning a less favourable electorate, and will be directing their attention towards their constituency as a result. Contacting these MPs with local data or through constituents will be a particularly effective method for gaining their awareness and support for the issues you work on.

Bringing the ‘local’ into Westminster

It’s clear that an effective way to get MP’s attention is through the constituency. However, this isn’t just about contacting them in their constituency, but also about how you bring the ‘local’ into your engagement at Westminster.

Our research with MP’s researchers highlighted that MPs are more likely to attend an event in Parliament if one or more constituent has asked the MP to go. In our recent research on how to interact with MPs’ staff, one parliamentary researcher stated that “Constituents are number one”, emphasising the focus in MPs offices on the people they represent.1 Other recommendations included that giving out tailored handouts at events with constituency information for MPs is a particularly effective tool.

Local engagement can also be effective at influencing bills. Constituent involvement has been shown to be influential in the passage of bills through legislatures with research by Jeff Smith for LSE showing that constituent support for a bill increases its odds of passing, and opposition from constituents reduces its chances.

In a crowded Westminster environment which has been dominated by Brexit, it’s reassuring to hear that MPs value the role that charities play in providing vital research and information. However, this year will still present challenges in terms of making your mark at Westminster. Bringing a local focus to your campaigning will help your issue get heard in the year ahead.

  1. nfpSynergy (2015) Political Gatekeepers: Insights from MPs’ researchers for charities. Free report for charities subscribing to the Charity Parliamentary Monitor (CPM)

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