13 MP’s was Theresa May’s majority, just 13 (*). That number means 7 Conservative or DUP MP’s backing a campaign could force the government to shift policy and make a deal. When Government majorities are so small, campaigners, activists and organisers have a huge opportunity to get our issue on the agenda.
2018 – June 12th the day, I walked out of The House of Commons with 20 others knowing that a group of everyday individuals had successfully amended one of the biggest bills to go through Parliament in the past 10 years. We managed to ensure legislation allowing child refugees to reunite with family in the UK would remain after Brexit.
It was done by harnessing digital tools to act quickly at scale, but sticking to the principles of face-to-face community organising.
What winning felt like
All 20 people in the House of Commons public gallery, refugees, priests, rabbi’s and everyday citizens all smiled ear to ear. Those were the people who’d met their MP and swung them over the line. I remember thinking a group of individuals this small shouldn’t have that much political influence.
One of the individuals who came to parliament that day, said “Its amazing people like me can shape politics. If I can do it we all can.”
Working in partnership with Lord Dubs and a cross-Party group of MPs we ensured the EU Withdrawal Bill bound the UK Government to negotiate a new deal for child refugees in Europe. We knew young people like B, a 15-year-old Eritrean girl who’d fled war and was currently sleeping rough in France trying to reach her remaining family here in the UK- using routes like this to reach safety.
How did we do it?
The maths: Theresa May has a majority of 13, and the last thing she wants is an embarrassing defeat. Even 5 or 6 MP’s who look like they’ll vote against her, is enough to force her and the Government to make a deal.
Local Community Organising
We had been getting organised in Conservative constituencies across the UK for a year and a half. Building relationships with committed campaigners who lived in constituencies of friendly Conservatives who’d voted positively on Refugee issues in the past.
We worked with groups who’d welcomed refugees locally, or who were pro-refugees coming to the UK to building relationships of respect and confidence with their MP. These relationships of respect meant we could act quickly and effectively when we needed to. So in the month before this bill came through – we booked 6 meetings with MP’s in the key conservative constituencies.
MP’s respected these groups because of their hyper-local nature and the effective work they had done in welcoming refugees, many had met the refugee families welcomed and now had a personal connection to the issue.
On top of this local community organising strategy we layered on digital tools some work to be able to act quickly and at scale. When we needed to really crank the pressure up on our MP’s. We got Lord Alf Dubs to do a webcast, a live video stream calling on all our supporters to write to their MP making the case to back the amendment and ask for a meeting.
Thousands of letters were sent to MP’s to tip this over the line. This was an idea we took from Rules for Revolutionaries.
On the Day
The meetings with MP’s seemed to go well, we knew from our local-organising we had 5 MP’s on-side but would it be enough? We had sent thousands of emails to our MP’s and put pressure on that way but when we walked into Parliament on Monday morning, we didn’t know if it would be enough. But we knew we had a good chance.
In the minister’s speech he finally came to the announcement on child refugees and the government had conceded the amendment, they didn’t want to lose a vote and our pressure had worked!
We wouldn’t have won with just digital tools or just local organising but using them together secured the future for thousands of child refugees. Digital and offline tools offer different strengths and challenges to campaigners, organisers and activists, we found that we can have the most impact when we harness both tactics together.
(*) This has changed since as some MP’s have left the party and so the scope for influencing is even bigger.
Alistair Rooms now works as a community Organiser with Newham Citizens, he has worked as an organiser for 3 years and is currently working on the Living Wage, Housing and Youth Safety Campaigns. Previously he worked at Safe Passage who won the campaign described above. You can follow what he is up to here: https://twitter.com/arooms93 – https://twitter.com/NewhamCitizens – Email: [email protected]