Straight from the horse’s mouth: 12 top tips on how to approach a new MP

tom-levittTom Levitt was formerly the Member of parliament for High Peak (1997-2010). After leaving parliament, he set up Sector 4 Focus to promote cross-sector partnerships between charities and businesses or local government for mutual benefit.

A new parliament is a great opportunity to renew your relationships with MPs – even more so at the 2015 election, where we have seen a large influx of new MPs.

How can you help your new MP to settle in, and to become an advocate for your cause?

1. Don’t make an enemy of them

Treat them with respect (not necessarily deference!) even if you disagree with them. They don’t have to be passionate (or even knowledgeable) about your cause to be helpful to you. Friends are always of more value to the cause than enemies.

2. Make it easy

In the same way that local journalists can be ‘helped’ when you write a press release that they don’t need to edit before publishing, so it’s easy for your MP to forward your well-written letter to a minister. (If you write to a minister you’ll get a reply from a civil servant: if the MP writes, s/he will get a reply signed by the minister, so you’ll know they’ve seen it).

3. It’s all about me!

Have a reason to offer the MP a visit to your place/event and a photo call. MPs don’t generally turn down an opportunity to appear in a photo, whether being supportive or neutral. Most MPs put aside Fridays for visits around the constituency (possibly Monday mornings and the odd weekend too). Book them well in advance as they have little flexibility for short notice events.

4. Learn your MP’s name

Duh! Nobody is impressed by a letter or email that starts ‘Dear [insert the name of your MP here]’. Don’t laugh – many charities use such blunt tools. MPs receive far too many emails like that. Don’t expect them to take your cause seriously if you can’t be bothered to use their name.

5. Keep it local

The one thing every MP cares about is their constituency (even if they were parachuted in). If you’re in Manchester don’t confront them with a London issue. If you’re in Reading West don’t bring up Reading East! If it’s a national or international issue stress the local implications – even third world poverty is more real to them if you can show that a community of local people care about it. Forget writing to someone else’s MP, you probably won’t even get a reply (unless that MP has championed your specific cause or is on a relevant committee, in which case say that’s why you’re writing).

6. Know the system

When and where does your MP hold surgeries? Is there an appointment system? Is it best to write to the constituency office or the House of Commons? Is s/he a minister or shadow minister? (If they’re a whip that will explain why their parliamentary profile appears so low – whips don’t speak in the Chamber).

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7. Don’t abuse the system

Don’t take 50 supporters along for a ten-minute advice surgery appointment – ask the MP to meet the group at his/her convenience instead. Don’t insist a matter is urgent when it’s not (most MPs really are busy creatures). Don’t write in green ink (it’s true what they say!) and don’t fire off drunken emails after midnight. Don’t over-lobby; they’ll get tired of you. Don’t be a troll.

8. Is the MP the right person?

If it’s a hole in the road or your charity’s local grant, you need the council. If the council (or police, service provider, shop, or NHS) doesn’t respond adequately then consider asking the MP to intervene on your behalf. Some MPs relish putting one over on the council, others resent being asked to do a councillor’s job. Some complaints, like to the Ombudsman, require MPs to endorse a request to investigate. Surprisingly, nominations for Honours (like an MBE for your long suffering CEO) don’t. Many MPs won’t get involved in local planning permission issues – they have no role in the process and might not like being seen to favour one side over another.

9. Petitions can be fun

A name on a petition doesn’t imply that the signer understands or is passionate about a cause, especially if their name is ‘M. Mouse’. Give full names and addresses – MPs love the opportunity to send out a mass mailing (even if their staff are less keen). And if your petition is written in a certain way you can ask the MP to present it to parliament, whether they agree with its content or not. Handing over a petition is another good photo opportunity for both you and your MP, but petitions are unlikely to change the world, frankly.

10. Do your homework

Look for common interests with your new member. What did s/he used to do in real life? Which select committee are they on? Which All Party Groups have they chosen to join? Invite them to join yours! Is s/he a PPS (ministerial aide)? If so, they’re limited, like ministers but less so, on what they can tackle in questions and speeches. What subjects do they tend to raise in written and oral questions, or make speeches, about? Follow them on Monitor their website and Twitter feed.

11. Don’t expect them to be a rebel

The parliament just ended had a record number of rebel votes in it, but rebels are still very much a minority. A recently-elected MP can validly say ‘We were elected to deliver our manifesto!’ whether s/he agrees with your criticism of it or not. And whatever pressures you can bring on him/her, be sure that the party whips can bring more… which is not necessarily a bad thing: that manifesto really ought to mean something. And ministers listen more to friendly MPs than to back stabbers (i.e. rebels).

12. Great expectations

Don’t over-expect. If you manage to change something by engaging your MP s/he will want to be the first to join you for a glass of Champagne (and a photo), but often the best an MP can do is to bring publicity, attention, and good solid logic to a cause. The MP can raise questions on your behalf but isn’t guaranteed to bring back answers you’ll like. In fact, they have no power at all, really. But they can be strong advocates.

If things go really well, you can look forward to your friendly MP hosting an event or an exhibition in the Commons for you, putting down a question or making a speech supporting your cause in an adjournment debate, asking a minister to the constituency to meet you, or even inviting you to a volunteering event at No 10. If you get on his/her Christmas card list you’ll know you’ve arrived. Will all that change anything? Maybe…

So, good luck! I look forward to a parliament in which MPs understand, trust, respect, and work with charities and civil society generally more than ever before. But that won’t happen by accident!

Like this blog? Please comment below with your thoughts, and check out the post from External Relations Manager, Chloe Stables, on the common mistakes to avoid when contacting your MP for the first time.

Are you thinking about your post-election influencing work? We’d love you to join us at Evolve 2015 for our ‘influencing and campaigning post-election’ workshop. We’ll be discussing the new political environment and sharing more tips on how to influence the new government.

Find out more about Evolve 2015.

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One Response to Straight from the horse’s mouth: 12 top tips on how to approach a new MP

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