Tom Stephens helped to secure the Infected Blood Inquiry and reform Britain’s abortion laws for the Labour MP Diana Johnson. Here, he offers his thoughts on how health campaigns can get noticed from the backbenches.
Party discipline appears to have broken down, new Parliamentary groupings have emerged and there is a greater tolerance of (or at least reluctant acceptance of) backbench autonomy in Parliament.
Yet for all that Parliament is supposed to be “taking back control”, it is often easier said than done for a backbench MP to make their mark. It remains very challenging for Parliamentarians to be seen, heard, let alone listened to in the noisy, crowded and unstable world of British politics.
Despite this, backbenchers can play a more decisive role than usual. Thanks in part to the current Speaker John Bercow, MPs now have a much wider range of Parliamentary procedures available to them to exploit the Government’s slim majority and get single-issue campaigns noticed. A number of MPs have taken advantage of this, reaching across party lines to secure Parliamentary support for some significant policy changes.
Indeed, some of the most successful backbench campaigns in recent years have been in health policy – from Stella Creasy’s work on abortion to Will Quince’s powerful campaign on baby loss and Diana Johnson MP’s successful efforts to secure an inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal.
The last of these, together with her work supporting abortion decriminalisation, won Ms Johnson the Political Studies Association’s prestigious ‘Backbencher of the year’ award late last year. Having previously worked for Diana in Parliament, I was privileged to play a part in her campaigns. Here are three golden rules I learned on how health-related campaigns can make a difference in Parliament.
Hone campaign aims around specific, eye-catching goals
Most organisations tend to have a very broad set of campaign aims; and can sometimes face internal resistance if they seek to hone them down. Identifying a single noticeable, focussed and even quirky policy objective can be key to getting noticed, and will ultimately help achieve your wider goals.
The campaign to reform the UK’s reproductive healthcare laws offers an instructive lesson. Britain’s abortion laws are over half a century old, and in need of modernisation. However, for decades, Parliament has been unwilling to discuss any prospect of reform.
It was only when campaigners focussed on two eye-catching policy goals – decriminalising abortion; and making it easier for Northern Irish women to access abortion services (an area of undoubted inequality but also one of renewed political interest, given the confidence and supply agreement with the DUP) – that they ultimately managed to get heard and grab the public’s attention, winning crucial votes in Parliament.
They have since been able to harness this newfound interest to achieve their wider policy goals: the Health Secretary has now approved the home use of early abortion pills; and draft text for new abortion legislation has now been published by campaigners and legal experts.
The same can be said for Will Quince MP’s campaign on baby loss. When, in 2015, he gave a very emotional speech in Parliament on how baby loss had affected him and his wife, he focussed people’s attention on one specific policy issue: that not all hospitals give parents time to come to terms with what happened, in private settings. Two years later, the Government set up a National Bereavement Care Pathway to address precisely the issues he highlighted.
Make Parliamentary procedures work for you – exploit opportunities for Urgent Questions and Emergency Debates
In the past, it has been very hard for Parliamentarians to respond to quickly-developing news stories. There was no guarantee that stories of the day could get heard in Parliament in “real time” to keep up with fast-paced media cycles.
This has changed dramatically in recent years. Since taking office in 2009, the Speaker John Bercow has granted seven times more Urgent Questions and over eight-and-a-half times more Emergency Debates than his predecessor.
When MPs are able to make good use of these new procedures, Ministers may cave in rather than risk repeated embarrassment in Parliament. The contaminated blood scandal, for example, has been the subject of no fewer than five Urgent Questions and six Parliamentary debates since 2015, and the Infected Blood Inquiry was announced in July 2017 on the eve of an Emergency Debate on the topic.
Build momentum with robust Parliamentary scrutiny and data analysis, generating focussed media stories
Well-researched news stories can help keep a campaign alive; and can also help build a base of supportive journalists to provide more long-term, consistent coverage. The best-organised health-related campaigns tend to plan for a range of such stories, and work proactively to identify opportunities for coverage through Parliamentary scrutiny tactics like written questions.
Incisive Health has built up an expertise in this area, using data to generate press coverage on the costs of alcohol misuse, access to contraceptive services, cuts to local health services and many more issues.
Read a newspaper and you might think that British politics is now solely about Brexit and internal party politics. Yet, in the years ahead, it is likely that we will see ever greater opportunities for newly independent (either literally or in spirit) backbench MPs to change policy. Backbenchers are at their most influential when a government’s majority is uncertain and the polls suggest the next election will be very close, regardless of which party will win the most seats.
The formation of a new Independent Group of MPs will only exacerbate this, as well as creating a bloc of activist backbenchers whose political future depends on making a mark outside the constraints of the traditional party system. Even when the current Speaker leaves office, it is likely that the precedent he has set of granting more Urgent Questions and Emergency Debates will live on.
Campaigns which respond to this shift, and look to capitalise on these changes, stand the greatest chance of standing out from the crowd.