Political influence for insiders

I’ve spent a decade working alongside politicians, civil servants, policymakers and journalists in a variety of roles, from the very public to the fairly discreet. I’ve changed national policies, I’ve led industrial action. I’ve received death threats and abuse (the latter sometimes from my own side). I was labelled “the mastermind of a conspiracy to create an illiterate nation” by the right while being called a “sell out” and worse by the left. I’ve made awful gaffes on Radio 4 and ‘enjoyed’ front-page headlines in the Sunday Times. I’ve been told off and hauled over the coals, and I’ve been trusted with the most sensitive information.

I never achieved half as much as I wanted, and some of the compromises and defeats were gut-wrenching. At the same time, we got some good things done.

During this time, as well as my own mistakes, I’ve also seen a lot of bad influencing, misunderstandings and unnecessary division. I’ve seen professionals alienated and politicians infuriated. And public policy has been the worse for it. We need effective influence. Thinking hard about what did and didn’t work, I wanted to offer eleven tips for effective political influence.

I am writing this, I know, from an established position, with access and voice. For thoughts on how to work without these assets, see Rules for radical managers. I do not pretend for one minute that all these tactics are available to everyone. Some groups will have no choice but to fight, provoke, embarrass, leak and manoeuvre. To borrow Saul Alinsky’s terms, it is a mistake to act like a ‘have’ when you are a ‘have not’. Equally, though, it is a mistake to act like a ‘have not’ when you are a ‘have’!

I have also been part of a team on all occasions, and most of these tips I learned from others. Thank you to all those who have taught me, with a heartfelt shout out to many old friends at the NAHT. There is a bias in here to education policy making in England, but I think it is applicable to a wide range of contexts.

The advice below assumes you want results, not glory or a fight. Those are all good fun, but you want a different set of tactics for those. I can’t bear grandstanding for utopian goals that never run the risk of having to be delivered.

  1. Don’t make it personal. There’s a line that can’t be crossed if relationships are to be sustained.
  2. Be known for absolute discretion.
  3. The best time to change someone’s mind is before they have made it up.
  4. Everyone needs a graceful exit.
  5. Don’t get taken for granted. Don’t let people rely on either your support or opposition.
  6. Play the reasonable intermediary.
  7. Sell what you agree. Don’t agree to what you can’t sell.
  8. Your radical middle tier.
  9. Progress in negotiations is normally invisible. Make it visible.
  10. Beware the wedge: no large group is ever united.
  11. You are ultimately waging a proxy war in the arena of public opinion.

Don’t make it personal

Most politicians have surprisingly thick skins on many matters. The brutal cut and thrust of political debate makes most professional disagreements look genteel. They also recognise that you sometimes have to talk tough in public. But there is a line you cannot cross – if you question their morality, integrity or intelligence, you are unlikely to sustain a relationship. By all means, go in hard on the policies, but keep a level of respect. “Play the ball, not the man”, as they say.

Things get tense; tempers get frayed; policies are proposed that look disastrous to those on the ground. I suppose you have a right to accuse those behind them of immorality. Just don’t expect to have a productive conversation with them afterwards.

Absolute discretion

A reputation for keeping confidences is one of the greatest assets you can have. Everyone around you will be leaking. It will be sorely tempting: there is nothing like being seen to be in the know. Journalists will prod and push and put words into your mouth. But the short-run gain does not outweigh the long term loss. If people can trust you, they will be more open, they will bring you in early, and they will share more of their motives behind their decisions. This helps you achieve the next point below.

The best time to change someone’s mind

Once public positions are taken, on any side, it is tough to back down. If you want maximum influence, try to be in the conversations when people are still trying to figure out what to do and position are not yet entrenched. To ensure this, discretion (see above) and a certain lack of predictability (see below) are helpful.

A graceful exit

It’s good to be involved early, before positions have solidified. But that’s not always possible. Sometimes you need to change people’s minds. We all find it hard to back down. It is even harder if you risk public ridicule for doing so. You will find it easier to change people’s positions if you offer a way out with dignity and substance. Such an exit route can involve a pre-planned concession that they can take back to their side. If you are feeling especially collaborative, it could involve identifying and granting the real win that they need from the situation.

And you need to manage your tone. Mocking and crowing over your victory is no way to encourage future compromise. I dislike in particular criticising politicians for u-turns. Don’t we want our leaders to be able to change their minds when presented with new evidence? That being said, I would not go too far in celebrating u-turns either: they can draw attention to the concessions. If you wanted to be kind, you’d moan instead about the hard bargain they had driven.

Don’t get taken for granted

If people can assume your position, they don’t need to negotiate with you. This applies whether they can count on your support or your opposition. If they know you are going to disagree with them anyway, there’s no point courting you or making concessions. I frequently heard officials rule out consulting someone because they knew what they would say. Even being a reliable supporter doesn’t get you very far: you’ll just be asked for a positive quote on the press release after they’ve decided everything. You are better off offering support or opposition on the merits of each case. And I can tell you, a tactical expression of unexpected agreement with an opponent can really throw people off balance.

The reasonable intermediary

This is something of a ‘tactic’, but you have to be able to sustain productive relationships while sometimes delivering tough messages or refusing requests. It can be helpful to present yourself as deeply reasonable and empathetic but that you fear you will be unable to persuade your radical colleagues. It is not ‘you’, they should understand, but your constituency. It is a face-saver for both sides.

Sell what you agree

You are only worth dealing with if you can deliver on your promises. After you’ve reached agreement, your counterparts need to believe you will bring your side along with you. If you promise things that are then rejected, your stock diminishes considerably. If you deliver on a difficult compromise, you become indispensable.

If you’ve kept your side informed of progress (see below) and taken their temperature regularly, you should be able to judge how far to go. Once you reach an agreement, you will need to be a strong advocate in its favour. And no agreement will be perfect – there will likely be painful concessions on your side. It is okay to acknowledge these – people are grown ups – but you have to be forceful that this is the best offer on the table. This will mean that you need to deal (kindly) with critics from your own side as much as from the other side. A half hearted defence of what you’ve been able to agree may feel like a face saver, but if it results in rejection it is a disaster.

Your radical middle tier

There are two forces at work in shaping the radicalism of people inside groups. Most people don’t care very much about your cause and have more important things to worry about, even if they are broadly sympathetic. The more passionate and energised someone is, the more active they are likely to be and therefore to rise through the ranks. At the same time, the more senior people become, the broader the information they have access to, the more accountable they are for results, and therefore the more pragmatic they tend to become. These two forces combine to ensure that the most radical element of most campaigning organisations is the middle.

This radical middle is also a gatekeeper between senior leaders and the wider membership or supporters. These are good people, whose support and engagement you need to get anything done, but they are also unlikely to be wholly reflective of broader sentiment. If they tell you that everyone is ready to march, for example, that may not be strictly accurate. You need to stay connected to sentiment at all levels of your organisation or movement and have conversations at all those levels to get an realistic view of strength of feeling.

Progress in negotiations

You can be covering a lot of ground in discussion, but nobody outside of them will see any of it. This can generate impatience and dissent – especially if you are working hard to maintain confidentially. I recommend a steady flow of updates back to your people. You can talk about the schedule, tone and agenda of discussions, and what you are saying, without revealing who else said what. People are often fascinated by how these things are conducted and they will be reassured to see you busy on their behalf. Don’t keep everything secret until it’s all wrapped up. When people feel like they have no voice in a vital debate, they get rightfully angry. When they know you are their fair and faithful representative, they are reassured even if progress is slow.

Beware the wedge

No large group is united; there is always a continuum of opinion. The government will always be able to find someone within your constituency who disagrees with you, and you will always be able to find someone on the backbenches who agrees with you. To a certain extent, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Don’t get obsessed with tracking or stifling dissent on your side or trying to find a position that pleases everyone. It can’t be done. There are always contrarian voices. It is a distraction to fight your own side rather than your opponent. Indeed, that’s the whole point of these tactics – to find the wedge issues that distract and discomfort opponents. Deal with your dissenters with generosity and patience, then return to emphasising the breadth of your own support and making your points.

As part of your preparation for influence, you will have made some assessment of the range of views amongst your constituency and how far you can go in one direction without sacrificing the support of too many others. You may decide it is impossible to please everyone and intentionally sacrifice the support of one group in order to strike a manageable deal. This is messy and unpleasant, but political influence means getting involved in politics.

Waging a proxy war

Ultimately, although it may not surface in specific discussions, the balance of power in political influence is weighed up in term of public opinion. What will the wider public accept? Will this help or harm election prospects? You need to figure this out early – it will tell you how far you can go – and you need to prepare to shape public opinion if necessary.

The views of the public are often a long way from the nuanced perspectives of professionals and policymakers. They deal in broad brushstrokes, they are not interested in the details and they are, quite understandably, concerned with their welfare and that of their families not with technical positions. You have to translate and evaluate your stance in their terms not your own.

Once, a long time ago and under a different administration, I warned that a particular decision would cause a lot of anger. An adviser said to me: “You don’t understand. Anger from teachers does not influence government decisions. We get criticism from Number 10 if there aren’t enough complaints from teachers – as the public then think we’re not tough enough on standards.” It was a sobering input, and a stark indication of the forces and incentives which influence on political decision making. We can bemoan this, but that is the price of democracy.

One of the most successful campaigns in recent history was the trade union campaign on school funding before the 2017 election. It cut straight to parental concerns about their children’s welfare. It used broad and stark messages. It didn’t really talk about teachers and their needs or fears or anger. It worked.

These tactics are sensible, pragmatic and practical. They are not right for every situation, as they assume a level of access, dialogue and some common ground. If your cause is just and urgent, it deserves effective influence. These tips avoid some easy paths to popularity and notoriety, but they could help make the world a little bit better.


For more detail on the actual bargaining process, see also Two tips for negotiations.

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