How good campaigns work: the first in the latest TCDSU leadership discussion series
Leadership 101 is the first in the brand new campaign series by the Students’ Union for this academic year
What makes a good campaign? Why did the Yes Equality campaign succeed while the Clinton campaign failed? How can we as students make stuff happen, whether that’s getting people elected or lobbying for change? Students descended on the Global Room on Thursday 17th to find out from the campaign manager of the Yes Equality 2015, Gráinne Healy; Daniel Waugh, USI Campaigns VP; and Seb McAteer, campaign manager for Senator Lynn Ruane’s Seanad bid.
SU President Kieran McNulty, MC, kicked off the event by reminding us of Trinity’s proud tradition of campaigning, with an anecdote from a previous SU President about how Trinity students used to lie in front of the O’ Connell bridge to protest the Vietnam war.
“When their research found that people didn’t want to hear from “the gays” themselves on the issue of childcare, for example, the campaign benefited from endorsements by children’s organisations including the ISPCC, Barnardos and Foróige, and when the campaign was concerned about the response of mass-going Catholics they sent out President Mary McAleese as a surrogate.”
Healy shared her experience working on the hugely successful marriage equality referendum, citing thorough research and attention to detail on tone and messaging as key reasons for the win. When their research found that people didn’t want to hear from “the gays” themselves on the issue of childcare, for example, the campaign benefited from endorsements by children’s organisations including the ISPCC, Barnardos and Foróige, and when the campaign was concerned about the response of mass-going Catholics they sent out President Mary McAleese as a surrogate.
Conscious of the emotional harm the No campaign caused LGBTQ+ people, Healy worked to prevent the proposed Australian plebiscite on same-sex marriage, commenting that even though they were successful in this case, “Referendums are the worst kind of creature to be leading. If you can avoid them, avoid them at all costs.”
In relation to the burgeoning Repeal the 8th campaign, Healy warned that her team worked for 10 years before the referendum to mobilise support even with an issue as uncomplicated as same-sex marriage, and that any Repeal the 8th referendum would be extremely tough and would need to shift the narrative that’s been built up over the last 30 years.
“When approaching people, he advised us never to go up to someone and tell them what to do, because asking them a question like “Do you think the minimum wage is enough?” is more likely to draw them in and entice them to sign your petition.”
Daniel Waugh, USI, spoke next about his experience working on campaigns including ‘Make Grá the Law’, ‘Education Is’ and the ‘Student Nurses and Midwives Pay Demonstration’. When approaching people, he advised us never to go up to someone and tell them what to do, because asking them a question like “Do you think the minimum wage is enough?” is more likely to draw them in and entice them to sign your petition.
He also talked about the limits of protesting and the merits of research – for example, when student nurses were being paid only €6.49 per hour and protests weren’t working, the campaigners spoke to authorities and found that they didn’t believe nurses would emigrate so didn’t feel the need to pay them more. Armed with this knowledge, the campaign surveyed 649 student nurses and showed the health service that many of them would consider emigrating, prompting a 62% wage increase. In his words, “Fair enough, you answered the question we had, here’s the money.”
Waugh also spoke about the very successful USI #rocktheregister campaign, which managed to sign up over 10,000 students to vote in 24 hours.
The final speaker, McAteer, filled us in on running a parliamentary campaign and how to lobby politicians.
He believes that the barriers to entry in parliamentary politics in Ireland are actually quite low, allowing independents like Minister Katherine Zappone to do well. Nevertheless, he said, campaigning can be brutal and discouraging even when you will ultimately be successful, like when he woke up to see then-Minister for Health Leo Varadkar endorsing Ruane’s opponent.
McAteer offered an insider’s perspective on lobbying politicians. How do you make them care about your issue when their whole day is people trying to do that? Firstly, don’t use email – it’s too easy to filter – go for phone calls or attending constituency clinics instead. Secondly, the way issues get to a politician’s attention is if they hear it many times from many different people and it’s cropping up more and more. Use the power of your local paper, which McAteer says every TD reads every day. And, of course, try to seem as “Middle Ireland” as possible, like you represent their constituency.
After their talks, the speakers fielded questions from almost every member of the highly-engaged audience, another demonstration that the spirit of activism in Trinity is well and truly alive.
This was the first in a series of TCDSU workshops on Leadership & Campaigning, with Women in Leadership up next.