For more than a thousand years the heart of political power in the British Isles has remained fixed in Westminster. Anyone who has tried to book a room in Parliament or secure time in a MP’s diary will know that this position appears largely unchanged. On the face of it this stands to reason; despite the growing role of Brussels as well as that of devolved and local government, Parliament remains the primary source of UK political leadership.
Yet, despite its seeming dominance, Westminster’s capacity to drive the political agenda is much weaker than in the past. This isn’t a predicament unique to the British Parliament; lawmakers across the developed world, are finding their traditional dominance of the political landscape challenged. Furthermore, those wishing to engage with the political process are increasingly recognising this. In the United States, the threat of a cap on new car-hail licenses in New York prompted Uber to mobilise its customer base alongside more traditional engagement with local political stakeholders. Similarly, when presented with a specific legislative challenge, companies like AirBnB in San Francisco and groups such as the Call Time on Duty campaign in the UK have responded successfully with campaigns which go beyond an exclusive focus on policymakers. These campaigns have typically featured a direct appeal to consumers and informed publics in an attempt to redefine the terms of public debate, rather than simply nudging the perceptions of a select group of policymakers.
This transformation in the status of Westminster and other legislative bodies reflects how technological change has altered the way in which individual citizens interact with their representatives. At the same time, public perceptions of the role of legislators (including MPs) has changed; we are no longer content to grant complete authority for driving political debate to our elected representatives before soberly evaluating their performance when the next election rolls around. On the contrary, a growing proportion of citizens now wish to be actively engaged in the debate alongside their elected representatives. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that popular confidence in our political leaders has nosedived over recent years; but it poses the question; ‘why should I rely on them to fight my corner or champion the causes about which I’m passionate?’ In this context, there is now an appetite on the part of the public to keep policymakers on a far shorter leash than was traditionally the case. At the same time, there is also a positive expectation that debates around policy and the big social issues will feature contributions from a wide range of voices and no longer be dominated solely by traditional political power brokers.
So where does this leave Parliament and bodies like it? Should those seeking to affect change in Westminster, Ottawa, Brussels or D.C be beating a hasty retreat, filing away overly complicated catering forms and abandoning Party Conferences? The short answer is No. Although the role of legislative bodies has changed and their influence has declined, these assemblies remain the primary vehicles for affecting political change and intervening in any given industry or sector. Despite this, the public realm is today rapidly expanding and drawing in a wider range of participants, including engaged individual citizens, NGOs, academics, trade associations and businesses. Political debate is now being shaped by a far broader range of actors. For this reason, in the future, successful public affairs campaigns will be those which recognise the need to win advocates outside as well as inside the traditional seats of political power.