Authors:Fiona Bawdon
Last updated:2023-09-18
Successful campaigning means winning hearts as well as minds
Marc Bloomfield
At the end of a recent podcast interview, shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy MP was asked: 'If you had a magic wand and could make one lasting change in politics, what would it be?' ‘I would restore legal aid,’ she replied.
In a clear reference to the cuts under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), she added: ‘When I reflect on the last 100 years of hard-won rights that my party has been at the forefront of fighting for, and then how, at a stroke, the coalition government took away the means to enforce them, I think that’s been devastating for a lot of people in the country. Access to justice has to be the basis of a decent country, and at the moment, for too many people, it’s just not there.’
There will be no levelling up without legal aid, she warned.
Nandy won’t be alone among MPs in seeing the impact that LASPO has had on the lives of constituents. With both main political parties committed to levelling up, the trick for social justice campaigners will be to persuade the next government that its attempts to level up will fail unless legal aid is restored in some form.
Lawyers and their professional bodies have historically been ineffective campaigners, tending to rely on a barrage of facts and figures to make the case for legal aid. As Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland said: ‘[T]he political brain is an emotional brain. It responds not to data but to instinct and feeling.’ In my essay (‘I’m 100% sure statistics alone won’t win the battle over legal aid’) in LAG’s 2020 book, Justice Matters: Essays from the pandemic, I urged campaigners to talk less about how little legal aid costs and more about how much it can do.
Currently, there is no political cost to governments from slashing legal aid spending. Voters tend to punish parties they blame for a failing health service or education system, yet the damage caused by the LASPO cuts has not (so far) been an election issue. One reason for this may be because, as AdviceUK’s executive director Chilli Reid discovered, legal aid campaigners are better at talking to ourselves than to the unconverted.
This was a lesson Reid learned in 2016, at the height of the Justice Alliance campaign against the LASPO cuts. He felt fired up and hopeful after attending a 400-strong rally – where newly elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declared that legal aid is a ‘basic human right’ (to ‘rapturous applause’, according to the Justice Alliance website) – only to come down to earth with a bump soon afterwards.
Reid’s ‘reality check’ came during a train journey, chatting to a group of scaffolders, a teacher and a junior doctor. When it came to Reid’s turn to tell his fellow passengers what he did for a living, he found that he didn’t have the vocabulary. AdviceUK is ‘a specialist infrastructure umbrella organisation,’ he said, to blank looks. ‘So, I then talked about the importance of legal aid and social justice and access to justice, and used all the words and phrases that had worked so well and been so inspiring at the rally just a few weeks earlier.’ More blank looks. To his fellow passengers, ‘justice’ meant criminal justice; they didn’t know what Reid meant by social or civil justice.
Reid’s conclusion was that we need to ditch the dry, technical language that has ‘become the default shorthand of legal aid campaigners’ and find words that are actually meaningful to ordinary people.
Anyone who has ever attended the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards knows what a powerful story there is to be told about how legal aid transforms or even saves lives. But that is not the story that prevails. The story of legal aid as told by politicians and much of the media goes something like this: legal aid costs too much; it is too easy for the wrong people to get it; it’s a racket for lawyers to use to make money/mischief; and when there are tough funding decisions to be made, essential services like education, health and national security must come first.
It’s a distorted picture but, as Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council, said in an interview with Freedland, Brexit showed us that lies are often simpler than the truth. Remain lost because its campaign was boring and emotionless; leavers may have built their campaign on falsehoods but the emotions evoked were genuine, he explained.
The only way for campaigners to fight ‘sticky myths’ is with ‘stickier facts’, says the climate scientist John Cook, quoted in Anand Giridharadas’ brilliant book, The Persuaders. ‘We need to make our facts even more sticky, more compelling, more catchy than the myth that we’re debunking.’ Cook has advice for his fellow scientists that applies equally well to lawyers: you need to grow more comfortable bringing personal revelation, story and emotion into your communication.
The fact that we now have a shadow levelling up secretary who understands its profound importance to the lives of voters, means that it is time for all of us to be better at telling the real story of legal aid.