At last month’s People Power Conference I argued that British campaigns tend to succeed when the changes they are demanding are morally right, technically sound and publically popular. Those bars are so high that few organisations clear them every time – and far too many are needlessly falling short by assuming that they don’t need to jump.

The third tends to be the highest and hardest but also the most important, so campaigners need a better understanding of the extent and source of their power – and of the relationship between their demands and democracy.

Questions surrounding NGO mandates tended to go unasked in the Labour years, in large part because demands from the biggest charities were mostly aligned with social democratic spending priorities. But now the Tories are back we’ve already heard noises about including charity advocates on the lobbyists’ register and Prime Ministerial mutterings that charities don’t in all cases do that much charitable work.

So campaigners are coming in for increasingly tough questioning about their privileged role in public life and too few have answers that are politically astute enough to secure them a real hearing in the colder climate to come.

Throughout my involvement in politics meetings with campaigners often began with them brandishing a press release detailing what percentage of the public backed a particular form of spending. The data rarely bore much scrutiny – small samples, loaded questions and findings about hypotheticals rather than priorities tended to dominate. If parties felt those were useful barometers of public opinion they’d pay for them themselves.

Those on the other side of the table are only too aware that their party’s fortunes (which in their minds are synonymous with the nation’s) depend on their ability to read, shape and lead public opinion. As the scores of Special Advisors hitting the jobs market in 2010 can testify – so too do their livelihoods. That’s why they spend so much time and money on understanding it and cross-reference everything you say about it with datasets you haven’t heard of and canvassing returns from places you’ve never been.

Given all that, it’s rarely wise to try telling a politico they will only win the next election by jumping aboard whatever hobby horse you’re currently riding until you’ve been in a marginal asking if people prefer your policy or getting their bins collected every week.

Campaigners often talk about ‘people power’ when what they really mean is ‘activist power’ – an ability to mobilise a small and generally unrepresentative supporter base. The trouble is that for politicians it’s the public at large who are the boss, and rightly so. Even if they believe the signatories of your postcards really know and care a huge amount about the issue, politicians will still tend to be more interested in the priorities of Ms Average than Ms Activist.
That’s because ordinary voters don’t have to sign petitions against inflation or wear wristbands to let politicians know they want the deficit down – they have a general election for that. Real people power – the sort that gives and loses politicians their jobs – is not thousands of people signing a petition, but millions of people casting a ballot.

So campaigners need to get off the hamster wheel of stunt-poll-presser-postcard-petition. Instead spend the majority of your time gathering raw political intelligence and subjecting it to serious analysis; analysis of who has power, how they got it and how they plan to keep it. Think about not just how many people it will take to make a politician listen – but what sort of people make them nervous and why.

Developing the right theory of change and an accurate power map is the best investment you can make. That’s because, in the end, politics is simply the application of power to policy; only those who understand the former really get to change the latter.