Since the Detention Forum was founded 10 years ago, parliamentary lobbying on immigration detention reform has evolved dramatically. First of all, there is a lot more of it. Secondly, it is done more meticulously. And thirdly and most importantly, it is having an impact. 

However, with it developed an unspoken hierarchy of perceived importance which sees parliamentary lobbying as the most important and ‘high value’ tool in change making. Is it an exclusive activity that only elites should be concerned about? Or should it be open to everyone who wants to be heard by politicians? We asked Sam Grant (@Sammy_G1988) Policy and Campaign Manager at Liberty and one of the Coordination Group members of the Detention Forum, to tell us if parliamentary lobbying is as glamourous as it is sometimes assumed to be.

Parliament can sometimes appear an impenetrable place of jeering and grandstanding. But if you are a campaigner you’ll likely have to engage with MPs and the parliamentary machinery at some point. 

I didn’t plan to work in political campaigning.  But I always wanted to be involved in campaigning against the injustices I saw and felt around me – and that led me to think a lot about how to build relationships with the people who have the power to create change. I started my career at a small charity before joining Liberty – and have learned that whatever size the organisation, the principles of political campaigning remain the same. 

Visiting Parliament to meet an influential MP is exciting. It’s an opportunity to bring someone on side, move campaigns forward and build a relationship for the future. 

Make every second count

However, the reality isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds. 

You are rarely the MPs’ most important meeting that day – in fact you might not even be in the top three. I’ve had MPs introduce themselves to me as if we’ve never met despite the fact its our third or fourth meeting. MPs might cancel as you wait to meet them – or send out an advisor instead of taking the time to meet with you themselves. I’ve learned it’s important not to take this personally – and to remember what I’m trying to achieve. And when I get time with an MP – however short –to make every second count.

I haven’t always got it right.  I’ve had bad meetings with MPs that may have taken me months of emailing to arrange. Or left a meeting and realised I didn’t manage to get the MP to commit to anything. MPs are skilled at dodging topics they don’t want to discuss and not every meeting is going to be a home run. With all that in mind, below are a few things I’ve learnt from the mistakes I’ve made. 

Before reaching out to an MP, do your research and build a list of target MPs. On immigration detention – and many other issues – there are many MPs I won’t try to convince because I know there is little chance of changing their mind. Focus on the MPs who are persuadable. For our parliamentary work on detention we split meetings with MPs across a range of different organisations. This doesn’t just help share the load. Different MPs might respond to established NGOs like Liberty differently than faith-based or frontline organisations, or experts by experience. Or vice versa.

Meetings with MPs are mostly targeted and pre-arranged. Securing a sit down often involves working with an MP’s advisor and can sometimes take months of cajoling. Think about the best way of making that happen. That might involve asking other MPs to make introductions – or working out exactly how to phrase an email or letter. For example, one MP finally agreed to a meeting after Liberty commissioned a report looking at the cost savings a 28-day time limit would make – so I made sure that was central in my communication with that MP going forward. 

Once you’ve secured a meeting it’s important to ask yourself what success looks like – and what your key ‘ask’ for the MP is. Remember MPs are not experts on everything. Break things down so they know why your issue is important for them and understand the fundamental concepts, then point to a reason why they might support the campaign. If you’ve done your research you should know whether to push on the moral, political, or even financial reasons – or the right mix of all three. All MPs have different motivations, background and experiences. Find out about their political interests, opinions, parliamentary friends, what have they said on the issue, and any relevant local issues for them. For example, have they got a detention centre in their constituency? Have they been outspoken on modern slavery? 

Best way to learn is by doing

Building relationships with MPs is an art – not a science. And relationships you build today can pay off in unexpected ways in the future. When it goes well it can bring almost 100 MPs of all parties together – as we saw with the campaign for a 28-day time limit on immigration detention in the latest Immigration Bill. That political backing will be central to the next stage of the time limit campaign and work to end indefinite detention once and for all.

Of course, political campaigning shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. The public and the media can influence MPs or make them more inclined to take a meeting or accept an ask. An MP is more likely to meet an NGO if they have received correspondence from their constituents or heard an issue on the radio. All these campaign methods connect – so when pushing for legislative change you need people and organisations working on the inside as well as from the outside.

It takes patience, forward planning and sometimes a lack of ego to be an effective political campaigner. The best way to learn is by doing.  Be ready to learn from others– and be assured you will get better with every meeting. The best coalition work makes the most of all the campaigning tools available. That’s how we have built parliamentary consensus around a time limit. But until that is written into law, we must keep working to turn that consensus into the end of indefinite detention in the UK.