Slating your prospective supporters does not help your campaign. This seems obvious. But it is something that cycle campaigning often got, and sometimes stil gets, wrong. If we want to campaign for infrastructure that is enabling mass cycling you address the decision making body with a clear message, whilst keeping your prospective “customers” in mind. In England at least, we also have some internal problems to address too.
Over the years I have often tuned out as too much was irrelevant and insular. Cycle campaigning has been a rather deafening experience in the echo chamber. Especially recent years with the internal debate about the type of infrastructure we need. Over all that we have become immune to that constant dinning noise, and have forgotten to hear and heed the real voices. These voices are outside our chamber.
In 2013 I had the chance to speak to a DfT civil servant, and they were pretty clear: cycle campaigns do not help the officers at the DfT who want change to occur. The civil servant said national organisations were too disparate, would have too many (sometimes conflicting) demands, and that there was no logic or focus. From a local campaigning point of view, I can totally relate to that. Over the years “Who are we campaigning for?” and “Just how exactly are you proposing we get mass cycling?” have been my staple questions at internal meetings. Although, for fairness, I must also tell you that subsequent talks with (other) DfT people has been more reserved. It takes a brave and honest civil servant to speak openly. A principled one. One that wants change and collaboration.
We have to recognise our dilemma. We are campaigning for liveable, sustainable, healthy cities, but often people do not know what that means. There is no connection to their lives, as cycling, to those, feels alien, not normal and dangerous. The VC debate, separation or no, is a purely internal one. It bears no meaning outside our own bubble. Naturally, we ought to make every effort to listen to those outside voices if not to make our message inclusive to the concerns. We must make these concerns ours too. Many of the concerns are addressed through better urban design and cycle infrastructure. We must make the connections between the concerns and the solutions, explain and describe them clearly.
And yes, this work has started, I am pleased to report. It has started after decades of wasting away volunteers time on campaigning for secondaries and issues on the sidelines. Small apparent gains that were only pawn-offs and silencers from power. Mere incremental creepings that were no part of a bigger plan. As requires no explaining, with no direction to head in you are lost. There was a lack of a national umbrella bringing it all together under one heading. Having some great local cycle campaigns now, the lack of a national umbrella organisation still persists today. Let’s talk about how we can get out of our own echo chamber, help national campaigning to become relevant and in turn help local campaigns. Scotland is so brilliantly leading the way in national collaborative campaigning. Can England follow?
We certainly cannot afford bubbling along in our echo chamber. It’s too exhausting. Above all, we need better transparency on what national campaigning does currently. Their “inside-track” campaigning has to be made visible to local campaigns. National efforts need some baring. I also suggest that local campaigns should ask for much more influence over the national campaigning direction. Following Scotland, can England get its act together, and get cohesion in their campaigning effort, message and collaboration? The answer must be a Yes! – as much as our future depends on it. If the DfT does not get a focussed hammering with persistent and clear messages, they won’t budge. For me, after seven rather concerted years of local cycle campaigning, I still see that the current set up is not working. Edicts and impositions from national campaigns are still not helping our local campaigning in Newcastle. They are a whimpering cry far away from our needs. We need proper reform at the national top. And a glance across the border to Scotland may just do the trick.