How to be a campaigning MP
From gambling to foodbanks to child funeral funds, Carolyn Harris explains for The House magazine’s 2020 MP Toolkit how – and why – she campaigns
Campaigning is in my blood. As a little girl, I was taught to stand up for what I believed in and to help others to do the same. I grew up questioning things that I thought were wrong and trying hard to change things for the better.
And that’s still who I am today. I may now have a bigger stage, a bigger audience and a bigger voice but I’m still that little girl from Swansea East who wants to make a difference and help people who are vulnerable or struggling.
Like all MPs, when I first arrived in Westminster back in 2015, I was inundated with requests for meetings with an abundance of individuals and organisations hoping to persuade me to get involved in their cause. To be honest, it was quite overwhelming.
Not long after, while at home for recess, my first Parliamentary campaign found me.
A young man came into my office desperate for help as he couldn’t afford to feed his kids. This isn’t unusual in a working-class area like Swansea East, but I was astounded when later that evening, collecting my husband from the local pub, I saw that same man feeding money into the fruit machine. It turned out that he was well known in the pub and the bookmakers down the road as a regular big spender on the machines.
My mind flew back to a conversation I’d had with one of the lobbyists about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) in bookmakers and the damage they were causing to those addicted to using them and their families.
With the support of other cross-party MPs who shared my passion for change, we set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group on FOBTs. All-Party Parliamentary Groups are an excellent tool for campaigning for change – as long as they are correctly administered. We undertook an inquiry, produced a report and lobbied the government, culminating in the stake reduction being implemented in April 2019. Working together, with colleagues from across the House, we achieved our goals to change legislation that would directly benefit some of our most vulnerable constituents.
“It’s about realising where there is a problem and being willing to roll up your sleeves and get directly involved if needs be”
Another successful campaign that I have led on also started life back in Swansea during recess. It was the first weekend of the summer holidays back in 2017, when I took a call from the local foodbank asking me to put out an appeal for donations. With free school meals gone for the holidays, the foodbank had seen record numbers of families in need of help and after just a few days were almost out of supplies.
Putting out an appeal didn’t seem to be enough, and so alongside this, I organised my first Kids Lunch Club. I asked local businesses for donations and my staff made the sandwiches with me. And that is key to campaigning for me. It’s not just about asking for things or telling other people what needs to be done. It’s about realising where there is a problem and being willing to roll up your sleeves and get directly involved if needs be.
That Summer, we expected to provide around 500 meals - we ended up providing almost 6000. We replicated this in 2018, feeding even more children and then last summer, we added hot meals at some local hubs, providing a record 12,000 meals – all thanks to donations from the within the community and surrounding areas and a group of committed individuals willing to help where help was needed.
For me campaigning is about finding causes that you can get involved in that will directly improve outcomes for other people. You may help one person, a small local group or thousands across the country, but as Parliamentarians it is our duty to help those that we can, in our own constituencies and further afield.
Probably the campaign I am most well known for is the Children’s Funeral Fund Campaign. When I lost my son Martin in 1989, I never dreamed I would be an MP or in a position to change legislation. At the time, my husband and I were struggling with the cost of bringing up a young family – the same as many of my constituents are today. Being unable to pay for his funeral without the generosity of friends and family and a loan from the bank was heartbreakingly unfair and I have never forgotten that.
Campaigning to prevent others having to face the same burden was the hardest thing I have had to do since being elected – reliving my own pain nearly broke me – but I knew it was something I had to do. Because campaigning is about fighting for things that matter to you, about making things better for others, and about using the privileged position you have, to help wherever that help is needed.
Carolyn Harris is Labour MP for Swansea East