If you’re passionate about a cause, be it related to personal experience or otherwise, one way to further any campaign is by meeting with a local Member of Parliament. However, not only can certain illnesses or impairments make attending a meeting both physically and mentally challenging – sometimes impossible – the prospect of putting a case forward to an elected MP can often seem daunting.
Having met with my local MP several times in the last few years, I have put together a few tips on how you might structure a meeting, as well as navigate the interpersonal dynamics in the room. This advice isn’t prescriptive, and there are many ways of going about conducting a meeting, but I’ve found the following to be helpful:
1). Set an agenda
I usually go for a three-tiered approach. I firstly introduce myself and why the cause at hand is of interest or concern to me. I then briefly explain the nature of the cause (taking care not to traverse the same ground as prior emails will have covered, as this can waste time) before going on to present one or two clear ‘tasks’ that my MP could undertake on my behalf.
The meeting isn’t a talking shop; that is, while it might be useful to meet with your MP to raise an issue’s profile, it’s a good idea to have a suggestion for the type of action your MP could take. Provided this action is within their means (be aware, for instance, that MPs cannot interfere with independent bodies or speak at all debates), they will usually do this within a few weeks, then get back to you. I find that having a few brief notes to hand can help me remember key points I need to cover.
2). Be mindful of time
Slots are usually half an hour long, and either your MP or their case worker – who will sit in with you and take notes – will keep an eye on the time and, if you’re getting towards the end, prompt you regarding what they can do to help if time’s ticking on and that area hasn’t yet been covered.
However, it’s often a good idea to envisage how long each item on your agenda will take, prior to the meeting. Try to allocate the lion’s share to the actions you’d like your MP to take, as this is the most important reason you’re there. They also need time to respond to your request(s) in order to give you clarity on any limitations that might prevent them from taking the action suggested.
3). Articulate your needs
If you feel able to be open about aspects of your illness (this isn’t easy for everyone), it might be helpful to send an email in advance of your meeting, or have a brief conversation before the session starts, in order to alert your MP as to any specific requirements or difficulties you might have.
For instance, if your illness means you suffer with brain fog or memory loss, tell your MP that this might occur in the meeting and, if you feel able to, let your MP or their case worker know what might be helpful in that instance. Likewise, if you have issues with sensory processing, you could ask that the lights be dimmed, or that you go to a quiet room, in order that you’re able to stay focused. MP’s offices should have wheelchair access, but do alert them prior to your meeting as to any other access requirements you might have. And if you are affected by chronic fatigue and you start to feel very tired; stop. You can always meet with them again or finish the discussion by email.
4). Don’t be blindsided
MPs are (usually!) very intelligent, and, when it comes to getting out of something or winning an argument, they are used to trotting out soundbites and maxims. Politicians will usually be upfront about something they can’t deliver on, and should explain why, but in my experience, they might also use sweeping statements in response to your specific argument which you may experience as an affront to your cause.
Yes, they are articulate and smart, but you know your campaign well and you have a voice, so don’t be thrown off scent or left doubting yourself or your cause. Some MPs have turned evasion into a fine art, but you’ve done your research and you know your stuff: stand your ground.
5). Ask for clarification
If you haven’t understood something, ask. Your MP might waffle on or blind you with jargon, so if you’re unclear on something, ask them to go over it again, or perhaps clarify any points you found particularly woolly. You’re not there to outwit them or be outwitted; it’s not Question Time. If you don’t ask for clarification on something for fear of seeming stupid or because you’re not sure what to say, that defeats the object of the meeting. I find it helpful to ‘do a Columbo,’ usually to the tune of, ‘let me just check I’ve got this right; you’re saying that … ’