Before engaging in any kind of political activity, we need to think through our Theory of Change. How do we change the world? Through voting? Strike action? Civil disobedience? All of the above, acting together?

The term Theory of Change is used by activists and sociologists to understand how we see power dynamics in the world, and how we seek to influence them. We all have one, but we don’t always articulate it clearly.

This is really important in any political campaign: we need to start by identifying the end goal, and then work backwards, mapping all the steps we’ll need to take, the leverage we will need to use, and the networks we will have to build, to achieve that result.

Theory of Change is also really useful for analysing existing political campaigns, and judging whether they are worth investing energy in.

Theory of Change in unions
The Theory of Change of many trade union leaders of the past generation, across the world, has been to elect sympathetic politicians. Whether Labour in the UK, Socialist or Social Democrat in continental Europe, ANC in South Africa or Democrat in the US, unions have focused on electoral politics: if we can mobilise our activists to get the right government in, we can change society from the top.

This has largely been a reflection of trade union weakness in the period of decline after the Thatcher-Reagan neoliberal assault, and the experience has been disappointing, to say the least. Think back to the excitement that was generated around the election of Obama, compared to the disappointment that exists now. Elected leaders rarely live up to expectations.

Over the past decade, there has been a shift in union tactics – a new Theory of Change. While realising that electoral politics is still important for creating the best possible terrain to fight our battles, most unions now recognise the importance of building union power from the ground up. There has been a new focus on organising, and on empowering activists to lead on campaigns.

Unions have sought to directly influence public opinion, and have a more visible presence, with a return to street politics. There has been a recognition that existing union laws are too restrictive to make industrial action very effective, and there has been tacit and sometimes even explicit recognition that for workers to win more power, the law will need to be broken. In some cases, such as the sparks’ dispute against the construction companies in the UK, workers have bypassed the official industrial relations mechanism, taken direct action, and won.

A model of trade unionism called Social Movement Unionism is in the ascendant, especially in the US, where communities have been mobilised effectively to fight for higher minimum wages. Faith and community organisations have joined unions in what is seen as a wider struggle for economic justice, rather than a narrow battle around terms and conditions.

Theory of Change in civil society
This is an interesting contrast to the Theory of Change of the clicktivist websites, such as Avaaz and 38 Degrees. They are essentially asking someone powerful to do something. You send an email, or sign a petition, asking a corporate CEO or politician to take action. These people are, or course, perfectly free to ignore you, and usually do.

Charities generally also seek to influence government policy and drive change from above, which has seen them attacked by British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as “anti-business”. On the other hand, new social movements like Occupy, and similar manifestations in other countries, have used direct action, and in particular the occupation of public space, to seek to influence society.

So what is your Theory of Change? There is no right or wrong answer, because if we’d found the perfect formula, we’d be living in paradise.

But when designing a campaign, it really helps to think through your fundamental ideas about how to bring about change in the world.