Learn about campaigning online

Learning for Change

Robin McAlpine – 12 May 2022

When I left a successful career to set up think tanks, there was a very particular reason. At night I was doing lots of leftie things; by day I was in charge of political strategy for Scotland’s university sector. I imagined a conversation between these two selves – and realised it would be quite a pointed conversation.

Basically if I did some of the lazy and sloppy things we’d do on the left with my day job, I’d get into trouble. So I decided that it was time to take my professional experience and try and see if I could bring some of it to the process of recreating Scotland as a better nation.

That is why I am so deeply committed to skills development, a fundamental aspect of what Common Weal has done since it was founded. We have taken lots of young, inexperience activists, given them either jobs or volunteer placements and helped them to develop professional skills. We have always believed that this is how we create change that can cascade over time.

And that is why we have set up Common Weal’s Campaign Centre and why we’re rolling out the first of our online training courses ‘How to Campaign’ this week.

The purpose of Campaign Centre is to help people develop skills, knowledge and confidence by being part of a community of other activists. It is an open space where people can ask questions, share their experience, point people towards useful and helpful material, support people in believing that they can step forward and help to make change happen, locally, nationally or internationally.

Learning via community is one of the very best ways to learn because it doesn’t only build up knowledge and skills, it builds up confidence. Whatever it is that you want to do but doubt yourself over or are nervous about or unsure where to start – there is someone else who has done something similar who will be delighted to help you on your way, and just as importantly, will tell you ‘you can do it’. 

And we all need help. It can be as simple as asking ‘is there a sympathetic printer in the area who might help us with this job’ or as complex as asking ‘I need to write something about current rates of inflation and was wondering if anyone has references on how much of it is down to profiteering’.

The truth is that I don’t know anyone in politics or activism who has done what they have done alone, without help. I don’t believe that person exists, because no-one has all the skills and all the capacity to do what they want to do. We’re only human.

The ‘other side’, the commercial interests that so often distort the democratic playing field in Scotland, have their own way out of this – they buy what they don’t have. That’s the purpose of lobbying companies like Charlotte Street Partners. Don’t have the right connections in government? Need an intro to a senior civil servant? Get advice on the wording of your media release? You don’t need the skills if you have enough money.

But social and community activists almost never have the money so they need to find a different way to fill in the gaps in their skills and knowledge, and again that is why we need to draw on what we have. What we have is a community of people with their own experience and endless goodwill.

If that community can come together and support and help each other it will have major and long-lasting impacts on Scotland. That is why, when we set up Campaign Centre, it was always clear this is not just about Common Weal, this is a service we offer to others. We’re still building it up but it is about helping you to do what you want to do, not helping us.

But while that kind of peer support is incredibly important and will make a difference, there are core skills that will benefit every campaigner. Those of us who have been inside professional campaigns have seen these skills deployed many times – but there is a reason they are often called ‘the dark arts’, and it’s because insiders really don’t want you to know about them.

I was very lucky. I grew up in a very political family (my mother was Head of Publicity for the SNP for many years), went to work in Westminster in 1995-96 when the New Labour machine was reinventing what modern campaigning looked like and from there spent the next 15 years of my life doing it professionally. It gave me access to expensive training courses and many other forms of professional development.

What I have learned over the course of my career forms the basis of this first of our series of training courses [LINK]. It is called ‘Building A Campaign’ and it consists of eight short films covering a different theme, each with a worksheet and exercises you can do to try and put your learning into action.

The aim is to give people new to campaigning some early tools that will help them build their own campaign, but also to build up their confidence. In my years supporting community groups and public interest campaigns with strategy advice, the biggest barrier to overcome is often the impression that people have absorbed that this is too complicated or difficult for them.

This is wrong. Everyone can campaign, everyone can bring change – I know because I’ve seen it so many times. Whatever you can do, whatever your skills are, they’re relevant. If you can’t see how they could be used, you’re not being creative enough, or valuing your skills enough.

(I hope some of these videos may still be helpful for more experience campaigners – none of us can’t still pick up hints and tips from others or from hearing different perspectives. I know I do.)

So have a look at the course and see what you think. Give us feedback – is this useful and helpful? Did it all make sense? And from there, what would you like to see next? I plan to do a more detailed course on developing strategy and probably one on working with the media. What else? What do you wish you knew more about?

Nor are we thinking only in terms of skills training but also knowledge development. Are there subjects you’d benefit from a fairly quick introduction to? I’m sure we can find someone lively and informed to do a series of short introductory videos. 

So get in touch at hello@common.scot or email me directly on the course as it is on robin@common.scot.

Scotland has so many battles ahead of it that those of us who want to see change need to be as prepared as we possibly can be. I can only repeat my same mantra again and again – no-one is coming to save us, no-one is sitting in the wings just waiting to step in and create the future many of us want to see. We can’t just head down to the beach, start a signal fire and wait for that help to arrive.

We need to decide how much that future matters to us and act accordingly. And if it matters enough then we need to work together in solidarity to help make each of us better at what we do. If we can get into that habit, Scotland can become a different place.

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