Tory governments breed activism.
Ok, there were several things the last Labour government that prompted those further to the left to take action too, but not so soon, not so frequently and not from so many disparate quarters. The left is once again on the march, or more often, on the static demo.
Of course now you can be an activist without ever leaving your home. Online campaigns are everywhere asking you to petition, to tweet, to retweet and generally spread the word. Whatever that word happens to be. But is the word always good? Should the default setting of an activist be towards activism?
I believe we must be a lot more discerning in our activism.
Today I saw a tweet from an account called @OfficialCANCER which was one of the worst examples of activism and reinforced all the stereotypes of “Clicktivism” that those of us who try to use social media wisely as a campaigning tool battle against.
The tweet read “Unfortunately, 97% of Twitter users will not RT this for support cancer. But the 3% who do are the ones willing to #makeachange” – I make that poverty of ambition, passive aggression and condescension in the space of one tweet.
There’s no link to information or to a place to donate funds. There’s no call to action (merely the implication that if you don’t retweet this pointless message, you don’t care about cancer). This tweet is going to cure nothing and won’t help the people living and battling with cancer, people who have lost someone to cancer or someone who is researching cures for the many types of cancer still taking far too many people far too early.
Far too often, a campaign becomes an end in itself, the catch-all of “raising awareness” a handy way of not measuring the efficiency of a campaign and how it is achieving its goals. Which is as problem, as this kind of awareness raising of something very general (i.e. cancer) can crowd out awareness of much more specific issues (i.e. information about how to access specific treatments or how to support financially or otherwise cancer organisations).
Political activists can be even worse.
I am a huge advocate of members being more involved in devising and running Labour Party campaigns. I spend a great deal of my time trying to open the party up to making sure this is possible, that members are empowered to make campaigns that work, like Grace Fletcher-Hackwood’s brilliant #MobMonday campaign.
But sometimes people make it hard for me. Like when they support the targeting of private citizens (Which is what Miriam González Durántez and the Clegg children are) in their homes. This was action for action’s sake. I personally don’t think it was as threatening as many said it was, but it was not an action that had a chance of making a difference – unless the aim was in fact to make things worse and to lose public sympathy.
Passions run high in politics, but it is precisely when passions are at their most fervent that the worst campaign actions are dreamed up. The campaign earlier this year to petition the Queen to refuse to sign the NHS Bill into law was a prime example.
Unlike the poor tweet, it had a real call to action. Unlike the street party, it didn’t appear threatening to people. But coming – as it did – on the back of an incredibly successful campaign which genuinely enthused the public as well as political campaigners, at a time when the spotlight couldn’t have been brighter or more people watching, some campaigners traded the dignity of a good loss (which lets you fight another day, as Labour have vowed to do) for the public indignity of desperate stupidity.
At best this move looked bloody idiotic, at worst, it threatens the fragile nature of our democracy. If Charles continues to meddle politically as King as he has as prince, who can we complain to if we were so willing to cede our powers to his Mum?
Activists like to act, I get that. I’m the same. But we have to stop treating all actions as equal. There is a welter of literature out there on how to create and win a good campaign.
To be effective activists, we should stop asking ourselves “What action can I take today?” but “What will best engender the change I seek?”.
Until you have an answer to that question, do the hardest thing of all: don’t act.