Rise of single-issues

There has been a rise in campaigning on single issues. A culture which emphasises individual choice (see individualism) over ideology has helped de-politicise campaigning and resulted in people, particularly younger people, building their own ‘portfolio’ of political engagement without being part of any organisation. Britain has also become more diverse ethnically and culturally (see ethnic and cultural diversity), inviting a range of single issues that specific people care about. We are in a technological age where ordinary people have the means to rapidly create and spread ideas (see ease of publishing online). In an information-rich society people also find it easier to engage with simple ideas. These changes have increased the appetite for, acceptance and proliferation of campaigns on single issues. This rise in single issues stands in contrast to the decline in engagement in formal politics.

Technology has freed people to support the causes they wish, when they wish, in the way that they wish. The barriers to entry for supporting a campaign have reduced from becoming a member of an organisation or political party to 'Liking' a page on Facebook. Individuals can also create single-issue campaigns easily online and use their networks to spread the message and gain support. However, these technology-enabled campaigns are often ‘mayfly organisations’; they can rise quickly but are often short-lived.

What are the implications?

  • Potential to mobilise a greater number and diversity of people.
  • Increased competition with many single issues promoted by many players (eg media, celebrities, members of the public, VCOs).
  • More fluid engagement as people move regularly from one cause or organisation to another and develop a portfolio of causes they support.
  • Weaker engagement as people increasingly lend their support to causes as opposed to developing a long term relationship with the organisations leading campaigns.
  • Increasing expectation of being able to engage online with a cause.
  • Increasing scope for VCOs to work with media partners to increase visibility of a campaign.
  • Political parties will increasingly ally themselves with single issues. This may make the parties more distinct.
  • Online campaigns without clear leadership, capacity or infrastructure may have less impact.

Moving forward

VCOs reliant on income generated from people who ideologically support their cause will need to address their new temporary supporters’ reluctance to commit to the organisation financially.

  • Can you create mechanisms for people to donate to your cause which do not tie them down to a long period of time?
  • Can you encourage one-off donations from your temporary supporters?
  • Are there specific elements of your campaign which your temporary supporters would feel ownership of if they could donate to that specific area?
  • Does your VCO need the supporters of your single issue campaigns to commit financially to your organisation?

People expect there to be an online component to their engagement with a single issue. VCOs have an opportunity to use the changes in online behaviour to their benefit, for example introducing a gaming element to a campaign has been proven to increase participation.

  • Can you add a competitive element to people’s engagement with your cause?
  • At the basic level do your campaigns have a Facebook Page which people can ‘Like’?
  • Do you have a standard social media presence, e.g. on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, FourSquare?
  • Have you read the online communities driver which highlights ways to get more engagement out of your supporters using principles from the digital games industry?

Fickle supporters wishing to develop a portfolio of single issues they support present both a threat and an opportunity.

  • Does your organisation cater for the full spectrum of issues your supporters are interested in?
  • Do you know which single issues your existing supporters might seek to support outside of your VCO? Do you have relationships with VCOs or influential stakeholders which operate in those sectors?
  • Do you have connections with VCOs in different sectors to yours which your research tells you have supporters who are likely to support your cause?

People’s allegiance is to the issue, not the organisation.

  • Supporters will engage with the campaign which looks most attractive and effective. Have you considered working with one or more VCOs on a single issue campaign in order to make your joint campaign more competitive and greater than the sum of its parts?

VCOs have an opportunity to work with other players such as media owners and businesses to campaign on a single issue.

  • Are you in a position to add a layer of credibility and further engagement to a single issue campaign being driven by a media owner or a business?
  • Are you willing to work with such an organisation on a one-off campaign?
  • Do your current supporters already have allegiances to particular brands? Is this something you could build on by working on a campaign with one of those brands?

Want to know more?

Mock election results reveal single issues high on the agenda for young voters

Published by: The Electoral Commission – an independent body set up by Parliament to ensure public confidence in the democratic system.

Date: 2004

Format: Web

What is it? An article on mock elections for students. It demonstrates different voting patterns to adult counterparts, including a preference for single issue parties.

How useful is this? A short article including statistics.

Audit of political engagement 7

Published by: The Hansard Society

Date: 2010

Format: PDF

What is it? A detailed statistical analysis of the degree to which political attitudes and behaviour change annually.

How useful is this? The audit presents the findings from public opinion polling on a range of political engagement indicators, updating trends published annually since 2004, providing a comprehensive picture of participation and interest in politics. The Audit considers six core indicators of political engagement: Knowledge and interest; action and participation; the efficacy of getting involved and satisfaction with the system. It also examines the public's reported levels of discussion of politics, charitable and political donation, and contacting of elected representatives. This year’s analysis has a focus on political participation and citizenship.

Other comments:  The weblink contains links to previous year’s audits; each of which focus on a different issue related to political engagement. The 2009 edition focuses on political participation and citizenship, the 2008 edition focuses on the constitution.

Future Focus 7: What will campaigning look like in 5 years' time?

Published by: NCVO Foresight

Date: 2010

Format: PDF

What is it? A strategic planning aide which explores the growth of consumer activism, more fluid activism, growth of new technologies, ‘professionalisation' of campaigning, the increase in competitions and coalitions, and the marginalisation of dissent.

How useful is this? The report is short and unpacks each of the 6 drivers and provides suggested next steps under each.

Last updated at 12:10 Mon 07/Feb/11.

Recent comments

Véronique's picture


Third Sector Foresight

“The Bono-isation of protest, particularly in the UK, has reduced discussion to a much safer terrain,” according to Naomi Klein the author of No Logo and more recently of The Shock Doctrine. In a recent article in the Times she is more than skeptical about the impact of celebrities engaging in campaigning. She’s also not keen on campaigning through blogs: "It’s safer to mouth off in a blog than to put your body on the line. The internet is an amazing organising tool but it also acts as a release, with the ability to rant and get instant catharsis . . . it’s taken that urgency away”.

This is very interesting. Crusaid is a single issue organisation (HIV and AIDS) and yet over the past five years we have seen many other organisations add HIV to their range of issues to campaign with and in the UK HIV services are being dilluted into general sexual health and other areas. We don’t see a rise of the single issue from where we stand, we see the demise of it. The dissolution of issues and causes into larger broadbrush approaches that are aimed at the 30-second attention span and become just noise can become a real threat to niche players like ourselves.

I wonder whether the fact that this trend looks like a growth in single issues isn’t because that’s the way we, as voluntary or campaigning organisations, make it look.

There are lots of people out there who are engaged in multiple ‘single issues’. (See Flexibility, Honesty, Collaboration). That’s because (a) they’re trying to behave like responsible, passionate, angry, caring global citizens, and that involves many issues; and (b) we serve them up with single-issue channels for expressing themselves, rather than a broader ‘movement of global citizens’ to be activists in. And we do that because we’ve learned a lot about how to make change happen. It works.

So the media and politicians see single-issue campaigns, but the real people inside them are as multiple-issue as ever.

‘Bono-isation’ – if that means trivialisation, which is not very fair on what Bono’s actually up to – may be what it looks like from the outside, but I don’t know of any single-issue big-scale campaign that hasn’t been run in the background by hardened voluntary/community sector campaigners who are pulling all the levers of power and mobilising committed activists, as well as trying to achieve broad-span public appeal for those with other things to do with their lives. It’s never been one or the other, it’s both.

What we’re seeing is not necessarily a weakening of popular passion or of its power to change things – in fact, if anything, it’s the opposite – but it probably is a weakening of people’s willingness to devote themselves to one single organisation.

So Robin, I believe, shouldn’t be worried about a decline in people’s willingness to engage in the politics of HIV and AIDS, for example; there are lots out there, some of whom will be willing to understand and campaign on the detail, while others will stick to the short-attention-span outskirts of a campaign.

But he’s probably right to be worried that this won’t translate into so many loyal supporters for his own organisation – not because their politics has been trivialised by the media pictures of Bono, but because they are also engaging in many other issues.

Complex lives mean complex engagements; I wonder if the part-time activists out there aren’t more sophisticated than we give them credit for!

Véronique's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Complex engagements are probably mostly seen as a threat by organisations, partly because this challenges their existing approaches and processes. I guess more sophisticated citizens and activists mean that organisations need to be really flexible and offer a range of options. But in terms of management and planning this is of course very challenging and demanding. It would be great to learn from people’s experience and the responses of their organisations.

Written as Policy Officer at NCVO

Richard’s point about people being engaged and interested in multiple single issues is spot on, and can also be considered in light of Naomi Kleins point about blogging. The internet enables us to access information, to gain knowledge and an understanding of a whole host of issues – and crucially it is also a medium through which we can participate in various ways. This ability and flexibility to get involved has contributed to the perceived rise of our interest in a multiplicity of single issues. Whilst I take the point about blogging ‘taking the urgency away’ there is also a point to be made about the posterity of the blogosphere – when you have commented in the public sphere its there for the world to see forever, so whilst its not the same as putting your body on the line, in a different way you are making your point and in some ways you will always be linked to that point beacuse its out there….

complex engagement in multiple issues may seem like a threat to organisations but can also be harnessed for positive gain – I recently met a CEO of a local infrastructure organisation who had capitalised on some of his volunteers ‘other’ interests. This had led to the LIO’s involvement in furniture recycling, ICT training, community transport and a lending library! and all because existing activists had discussed other issues they were involved in, interested in and campaigned for.

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