Compromise or capitulation?

By Drew Lindon

How do you know when to compromise when planning or running campaigns? It’s a tough issue to contemplate – do you strive for purity of purpose and approach, but risk asking for too much? Or aim for a realistic target which fails to build enthusiasm (or even consensus) amongst your supporters?

You see this dilemma in our current politics. The Labour Party has been mired in infighting following the first and now second election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. Many of these debates have been around a perception about whether the current principles and policies are likely to win elections, or if winning elections should even be the main goal. Equally, look at the Conservatives. Following the UK vote in favour of Brexit, the Prime Minister Theresa May has assured us that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. But this means in practical terms is unclear. At some point in the process of negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU, someone, somewhere is going to compromise on what they want – not least as there’s no way that Mrs May can satisfy all the varying aspirations of her MPs on Brexit, much less those of the wider public.

Take education. Say you want to ensure a subject is taught in all UK schools – sexual consent, first aid, financial planning – whatever it may be. There’s a lot to think about when planning; you’ve got devolved responsibility for education in the UK, meaning that you’ll need to devise a strategy that works for each of the four UK nations (or four different strategies). Or do you just focus on one country for now, and hope that success there can be built on in the other nations?

Let’s say you pick England for now. How would you make this happen? Some campaigners’ natural inclination would be to make a subject mandatory via central government decree. Putting aside whether that would be possible in the current political climate and education structure in England, it might not be effective. For comparison, existing laws for schools in England and Wales mandate that pupils should take part in a act of ‘collective worship’ each day, but how this is applied and how far it actually happens is a matter of debate. Likewise, just because something is being taught, it doesn’t mean that it will be taught well or that pupils will come away armed with the knowledge you want. Fundamentally, you want pupils to have the knowledge, and you might compromise on the approach without undermining your cause. An alternative (though resource-heavy) might be engage on a school by school basis, demonstrating the value of fitting this subject into the squashed school day, and build momentum that way.

Some of this discussion is about practicality, but it’s also about how far you are willing to accept a partial win. Agreeing what success would look like with your colleagues and supporters is challenging, but it’s vital to do that when planning a campaign so you have a basis to make decisions later down the line. Let’s say you’re Open Britain (see our video on them here), born from the ‘Stronger In’ campaign that advocated remaining in the EU during the referendum. They’re calling for the UK to stay a member of the single market following the Brexit negotiations. But could they and their supporters accept some limitations on the UK’s access to the single market, if the alternative was no membership at all?