“All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention”. I’m normally deeply sceptical about the value of inspirational quotes but the final three words in this partial quote from L.R. Knost helped to clarify some thoughts about the situation we are in and how we might gather our collective strength, organise, and help ourselves and those around us.
Right now, the Tories are busy stripping away the rights of millions of our friends, family members and neighbours and it would be extremely naïve to believe that this is the limit of their ambition. At the same time, the official opposition is engaged in bitter fighting under the guise of electing a new leader, the LibDems have temporary co-leaders and a handful of MPs, and the SNP, all powerful in Scotland, are being dismissed and derided by English Tories. Other parties and MPs can have local influence but pose no serious threat to Johnson’s cocksure, brexiter government. The lack of coordinated and effective party political opposition to Brexit contributed massively, undeniably, to the failure of the various Remain/Second referendum campaigns, and it seems it will be a long time before a credible, UK-wide, party will be in a position to offer more than token opposition to the Tories. So what can we do? It would be trite to say learn from the past, so I won’t. It would also be of limited value since we are now in very different territory. Instead I’ll try to suggest some things that have been tried many times but perhaps were less effective than they might have been because of distractions.
To start, we need to recognise clearly what we want. Since December 13th I’ve seen campaigns calling for instantly rejoining the EU, creating an independent city state of London, associate membership of the EU for those who voted Remain or those who have the means to pay for it, and more besides. I can’t tell anyone what to campaign for and expect them to heed what I say, but I will say that these campaigns seem to me to be based on frustration and/or exceptionalism and lack any vaguely credible plan to realise them. I’ve also seen vicious attacks on dedicated remain campaigners and friends whose pragmatism is smeared as backing for Brexit. It is nothing of the kind. It’s now about a month since the election; January is a difficult time for exhausted campaigners to feel very motivated, but respond to the Tories we must. Pragmatism and acceptance of the facts is the only sensible way forward – the Tories have captured all the unicorns so we’re going to have to walk. Pragmatism is about the things we can do; this obviously rules out huge, expensive advertising campaigns on Facebook, but it also means that crying out on Twitter for “someone” to take to the streets like in Paris or Hong Kong is pointless. If street campaigning, occupations and the rest happen they will evolve independently. Marches are a different thing and do need planning but we still need to answer the question, what do we want?
For me it has to be to act in a coordinated way, with unambiguous messages and actions that are aimed at protecting those most at risk; EU citizens in the UK, UK in Europe, young people who need decent jobs with good employment rights and access to housing, BAME citizens who have long been targets of racist hate and many others. And of course there is the rather pressing issue of the Climate Crisis. The list is long but the target is obvious – the government.
Having set out what I would like to see, the obvious next question is how do we get that? At the moment, online campaigns and campaigners feel disorientated, directionless and adrift. We leap at every government outrage and “dead cat” before rushing to the next one; we spent two days discussing Dominic Cummings’s backside. Before anyone gets excited at me – I did exactly the same, yes, I’m a massive hypocrite. This post is aimed at me as much as anything else. The point is that acting like this is both exhausting and very unlikely to change anything. What we saw during the last three and half years was a systematic assault on multiple fronts by brexiters led by both public and hidden faces. Yes, they were very well resourced and had direct access to and willing support from mainstream press and broadcasters, something we can’t replicate, but mostly what they had was “intention”. They wanted to win and were willing to throw away everything that distracted from that. This is what we need to do.
As I write this Donald Trump is giving his address on the situation in Iran and progressives on Twitter have all tuned in and started commenting. This is natural and understandable but, at the same time as we were preparing for this speech, the House of Commons has been debating the Withdrawal Agreement and voting against protecting “the right for unaccompanied child refugees to be reconciled with their family after Brexit”. Could we have stopped this? Probably not, but the first I heard about it was after the vote. I have to do better. We have to do better. The question is, did I need to allow myself to be distracted by the orange one spouting his usual anti-Obama nonsense. No. The same is true about things like the Russia report. The Tories are in government and are busy dismantling the separation between government and the judiciary to prevent judges being able to tell the government that they can’t break the law. We all strongly suspect there is evidence of massive interference in our elections by Russia and others but, important though it is, what will we do with the information that opposition MPs and lawyers in Parliament won’t do? Campaigning tirelessly for a report that tells us what we already “know” takes time away from protecting the rights we all depend on.
So what next? As we move into the reality of leaving the EU at the end of January are we going to be able to provide any kind of counter to this appalling government? I hope so and I’d like to suggest that there is still value in traditional campaign methods. I know it’s boring but we can’t do everything via Twitter. Emails are far more likely to be read and answered than tweets (my MP has replied to precisely none of my tweets). Turning up in person at MPs surgery meetings can be very impactful for those who can do it. Polite tweets may get a basic reply, abuse is a short-lived pleasure and will almost certainly lead to being blocked by your MP. This is not, in my opinion, a badge of honour, rather a recognition of a failure on both parts. More exciting and newsworthy campaigns will certainly arrive in due course but people we know are having their rights stripped away NOW.
Twitter is an excellent medium for fast communication with lots of people; it’s also a hate filled sewer. Don’t respond to the trolls and the bots, block or ignore those who want to do nothing but distract us, listen to those who have good information and don’t always jump at the worst things the government tell us they’re doing. Distraction is an easy technique for those in power. We need to wise up, concentrate, work together and most importantly, if you have something to say, don’t tell me about it, tell your MP.
Thanks for your attention.