The independent campaigners creating a new politics

Michael Harris /   June 29, 2015 at 8:39 PM 1,760 views

The Prospect magazine Think Tank Awards 2014 were handed out last week. According to the organisers, the aim of the Awards is to “honour the achievements of the organisations that help to shape public and political thinking on policy questions.” As such, the Awards are a good guide to what the political class thinks and who they ‘rate’. But as for ‘shaping public thinking’, the Awards seem increasingly anachronistic as the crisis in political legitimacy deepens year after year, policymakers are held in ever-lower contempt by the public, and when even conservative commentators regularly bemoan the bankruptcy of our current political class (think tanks included, presumably). The Awards aim to “give credit to the most original, influential and rigorous work on the most pressing challenges facing people, governments and businesses.” But perhaps the most fundamental issues – why no-one trusts politicians, policymaking or the mainstream media that reports on them – seems to have largely passed the think tanks by, raising the question of who are think tanks thinking for, and couldn’t they do a bit more thinking about we how might restore some basic trust in politics? More broadly of course, there’s a shift is going on in our expectations. No longer content to be subjects, we wonder what a genuinely representative and responsive – or let’s settle for non-corrupt – political system might look like. As regular readers will know, we’ve discussed some of the issues with think tanks on this blog many times in the past, indeed we established this blog in reaction to mainstream think tanks. Clearly, think tanks can play a useful role in examining policy issues, proposing new approaches, and providing governments and political parties with new ideas. At the same time, think tanks seem increasingly out-dated and exclusive given the rise of social media, blogs, online voting and discussion platforms, a generalized distrust of ‘experts’ and a generational desire for people to have more of a say in the decisions that affect us. As one journo tweeted in relation to the Prospect Awards:

In the age of anti-politics perhaps the traditional model (and the funding dependencies that follow) of the think tank is part of the problem, not source of the solutions. We need new ideas from new people – those outside of the political class, who are more connected to the issues they consider because they experience them directly, and who aren’t beholden to rich patrons for money and ‘access’.

Last year around the time of the Prospect Awards we proposed some alternative winners, highlighting some of the independent campaigners and groups outside of the political class who have done much to raise issues, challenge the mainstream and generally provide an alternative to the what the political class thinks and thinks is important. In the same vein, here are some personal gongs for this year, handed out in recognition of the independent, self-organised grassroots groups and individuals who are passionate, committed, determined and imaginative in challenging the mainstream agenda and assumptions.

Positive impact on public debate

Examples over the past few years include the Everyday Sexism project, set up by the writer and campaigner Laura Bates which provides a place for women to tell their stories of everyday sexism in their own words. The project went viral and has received thousands of entries. Jack Monroe’s blog about her £10 a week food shop for herself and her son also went viral and helped to put a human face on poverty and low incomes in Britain today. Other campaigns of note include the Trussell Trust’s work to show the rise in the number of people using foodbanks, the 38 Degrees campaign to get the Government to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking, or the on-going campaign to prevent the closure of the Independent Living Fund.

Effective use of social media

Examples include the viral #nomakeupselfie, a grassroots awareness- and fund-raising campaign started by Fiona Cunningham. Or how about the various spoofs of the Tory Chair Grant Shapps’ Twitter info graphic on the cuts to the ‘bingo tax’ and beer duty announced in the Budget – frivolous in one respect, but also pretty lethal to the Tories’ appeal to ordinary voters. Frontline bloggers who have made effective use of social media include Dr David Wrigley who successfully crowd sourced 1,000 signatories from across the NHS for an open letter to campaign against new rules to force greater competition in the NHS from being snuck through Parliament without adequate scrutiny. Kate Belgrave has used her blog, including photography and video, to share powerful stories of people dealing with public sector cuts, whilst Inspector Michael Brown continues to be a authority on policing and mental health through his Mental Health Cop blog. Meanwhile, Scriptonite continues to fight the good fight with her crusading blog, now joined by a weekly radio show.

Making life uncomfortable for policymakers

Examples include the campaign against Atos and the Work Capability Assessment by disability campaigns, which made life uncomfortable for ministers with the then Employment Minister Mark Hoban refusing to meet with Spartacus. Just this week, Steven Sumpter lost his judicial review challenge in the High Court to the fairness of the Government’s consultation process on the introduction of new eligibility criteria for mobility benefit, introduced as part of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – though on his Latentexistence blog Steven noted that his challenge was also substantially vindicated by the Court. 38 Degrees has been campaigning to stop the new database of medical records from being launched and NHS England have now announced a pause in their plans. Laura McInerney has been battling with the Department for Education for the right to know how it decides which free schools to approve – last week she lost on a point of process rather than principle. Frontline probation bloggers such as Jim Brown at On Probation Blog and the Probation Officer have been equally tireless in pointing out the risks associated with the outsourcing of the probation service.

Innovative approach to protesting

Going a bit outside our traditional social policy focus, examples include the fracking protests in the south of England, which have achieved fame, not least because the Green MP Caroline Lucas was arrested as part of them. Elsewhere, student protests against the outsourcing of support services at the University of London was picked up by the media and on social media. Other protests worth recognition include recent student protests at both Sussex and Birmingham Universities and the UK Uncut campaign against corporates such as Starbucks who pay little or no corporation tax in the UK.

Best report, blog or article

Jane Young produced a powerful report for Just Fair on how the UK Government is in breach of its legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of disabled people. Then there was the well received book NHS SOS on how to save the NHS co-edited by Jacky Davis and Raymond Tallis, which is surely worth many a think tank report. Posts that have trended across social media over the past year include Sue Marsh’s post on The Big Benefits Row or squidgetsmum’s open letter to the Daily Mail, while Joe Halewood’s blog SPeye continues to be required reading for anyone interested in or affected by the bedroom tax. Meanwhile, bloggers from all corners of the UK such as Mike Sivier, Jane CarnallAlan Wyllie and Thomas G Clark are better read (in all senses) than many mainstream commentators. These are inevitably partial picks, based on the people and groups we’re aware of from social media, and neglecting those we should be aware of but aren’t – so let us know who we’ve missed and which groups and individuals should also be acknowledged for creating a new type of politics.

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