Starting a political movement

A new range of tools, from online poll makers to crowdfunding platforms, have made creating and running a professional political movement easier than ever.

It’s no surprise then that Non-Party Campaigners (NPCs) – individuals or organisations that campaign in the run-up to elections, but are not standing as political parties or candidates – have dramatically increased in number in recent years in the UK.

In case any readers are thinking of taking to the stage at the proverbial festival of democracy that is an election, here are a few choice bits of research to help guide you in your tentative first steps in starting a political movement.

Clarify your ambition in simple terms

Political scientists Stewart, Smith & Denton researched political

movements throughout history and identified three broad categories:

Innovative movements try to replace existing norms and values with new ones.

Revivalistic movements want to reinstate values that have previously existed but have decayed or ceased to exist.

Resistant movements aim to preserve an aspect of existing conditions.

The temptation to reinvent the wheel in political campaigning is incredible strong; by starting with one of these pre-set ambitions you’ll be in good company and save yourself some time.

Give it a clear brand

William Miller wrote eight principles for effective political movement branding in “Branding the Tea Party” which are based on a review of existing academic political

marketing literature. A summary of those principles are as follows:

1. Use a name that is easily recognisable by prospective supporters

2. Choose values and symbolism that will bond members of the movement together

3. Make it distinctive from other similar groups

4. Be consistent

5. Build a network to convey information about your movement

6. Give ways for people to convey their support for you

7. Be focused and aim to dominate a niche rather than appeal to all

8. Sell what you believe to be true in a way your intended audience would find most appealing

Find your rallying cry

In their book Revolt, Alex Lewis & Bridget Angear show that the most successful movements have memorable rallying cries that include a verb. They list “make poverty history”, “yes we can” and “black lives matter” as recent examples. I would add “make America great again” and “take back control”.

Verbs are, after all, ‘doing words’; since movements always eventually want to get people to do something, landing on the best possible verb for your campaign at the outset is a good idea.

In addition to the inclusion of the most appropriate verb, they suggest slogans should be three (or at most four) words long, be novel, distinctive and simple.

The ingredients for classic rallying cries are a verb, a problem and a solution. Some examples of these three ingredients in action:

• Take (verb) back (problem) control (solution)

• Make (verb) poverty (problem) history (solution)

• Make (verb) America great (solution) again (problem)

Amongst other things they advise writing as many examples as physically and mentally possible, ruling nothing out and with a little luck eventually the right set of word will present themselves; if it helps think of it as a hashtag or a phrase for a wristband you want supporters to wear.

Test and then amend or scale

At each stage of the process of creating a movement it’s important to use research to help confirm hypotheses that you have developed or steer you away from approaches that are likely to fall flat.

Whether it’s understanding if your ambition is seen as desirable by enough of the sorts of people you’re hoping to recruit, or deciding on the best logo, or choosing the most motivating rallying cry, there is no excuse to not do some form of test.

Online polls are incredibly easy to setup and can quickly give you a snapshot of what a large group of people think.

Running some ads on social media which use variations on imagery and copy will give you a very clear indication as to the sort of language and iconography that people will find inspiring.

And focus groups are always hugely informative; from the basic ‘speak to some friends who sort of represent the audience ’ to the more involved form where you recruit members of the public who fit the appropriate demographic / behavioural / attitudinal profile.

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