Up with People Power!

By Diana Trimble, Simpol supporter and campaigner.

Sheila McKechnie, the brilliant Scottish campaigner most famous for defining the field of consumer rights, said that when she began work at homeless charity Shelter, she had thought she was joining a campaign for the homeless but found instead a home for the campaign-less. This remark reveals a lot about the well-meaning but somewhat ineffectual and hobbyist nature of many worthy NGOs “back in the day”. But this one woman’s talent for strategy, organization, research, and constructive confrontation, soon transformed the fortunes of Shelter as well as those of thousands of vulnerable people.

Oh, and she is probably also responsible for evolving the dialectic about homelessness into one that recognized the root causes. Hard to believe then that she died at only 55, a terrible loss that was turned into an opportunity with the 2004 establishment of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK), in her memory.

Sheila’s pithy quip was recounted by Campbell Robb (present Shelter C.E.), at the closing of the brilliant People Power Conference held at 15 Hatfields in Southwark, London, on March 22, 2011. Robb further elaborated that it was this instinctive understanding of effective campaigning that inspired colleagues to establish the foundation and ensure that her legacy continued.

And what better way to honour such a tireless and successful activist than by running a strategy learning centre to support and develop new generations of campaigners?

I’d been wanting to participate in a SMK event for a while and finally got my chance when I was generously awarded one of several bursaries that are available to organisations with budgets as petite as Simpol’s.

I was delighted to see that early on the bill was Polly Higgins (Simpol supporter, forest activist, author of the Declaration of Planetary Rights, and founder of Trees have Rights Too) featuring in a “balloon debate” entitled “Who can inspire people power to tackle climate change?” Polly stressed in her 7-minute pitch that “We the People” is a phrase at the heart of important documents such as the UN charter (and, I would add, the American Declaration of Independence) and it is worth remembering and cherishing the reason for this. She is correct (and I wasn’t the only person who thought so, for she aced the debate). Isn’t this the core of the word “democracy”? It is meant to signify government both for and by the people, but if the people are disenfranchised, alienated from the political process, and powerless to influence the shadowy forces that govern international deal-making, then the claim appears farcical. If the people have no power then there is no real democracy. It’s a sham. Exactly what Simpol says.

Which brings us to the purpose of the conference – let’s get “the people” to take their power back by wising them up about the way things really work!

Which brings me back to my personal pet peeve about the street-activist scene both here in the UK and in the US: I’m bothered that valid mistrust of governing institutions has led many to think that politics can be completely bypassed. It’s as if there is no need to engage with present political systems – since the aim is to bring it all down.

Everyone has their role to play, even rioters at an otherwise peaceful protest, and so I’m not saying that everyone has to get into politics, but in today’s world it is disingenuous to think that it doesn’t matter. So yes, the sound byte may go that regular people kicked up a fuss about selling off England’s forests and the government backtracked, for example – but it still came down to MPs either passing or rejecting the plan.

As Louise Hanson (Head of Advocacy, Which?) cogently pointed out during a lively “Question Time” debate, the forest proposal was actually something of a no-brainer battle for the government to throw the towel in on: not much money in it and it made them look like creeps, so they were only too happy to back swiftly away from that particular terrible idea. At least until the furore dies down….

But once the outraged celebrities think the battle is won, once the Facebook campaign is stale and Avaaz has moved on, who is it that makes sure political promises are kept? Campaigners who don’t run away from the fact that they have to thanklessly maintain pressure on and relationships with those in the halls of power, that’s who. These are the people you’ve never heard of who will be persistently working away to make sure that the government doesn’t backtrack on the forests, long after the lovely Trudy Styler has returned to her tantric devotions.

Happily, and unsurprisingly considering Sheila McKechnie’s example, this conference was neither a complaint-fest nor a substance-less love-in, but was packed with practical information and, dare I say it, political savvy. John Hilary (Exec. Dir, War on Want) set the bar for the day with his mid-morning workshop on “60 years in the struggle for global justice” in which he described with expertise and wit some of his brilliant tactics for navigating the political minefield that is the terrain of the anti-poverty lobbyist. I really wished that the audience had included some of the sweet idealists I’ve met (especially in California) who truly believe that we can just focus directly on waking up the collective heart of humanity and not worry about the nuts and bolts in the meantime. Like I said, everyone has a role and so I’m not going to actively try and prevent anyone from chanting for world peace, have done it myself and think it’s a fine activity; but as Hilary’s erudite synopsis of the last half-century plus of social justice campaigning PROVED, it takes ink on paper – often in the form of money – to make real changes in this world in which we now live. You just can’t bank on the likelihood of a transcendent act to sort things out: we need to change laws.

So though I agree, in principal, that actually all everyone needs to do is become blissfully aware of the interdependence of life and immediately wars and environmental destruction would cease, I’m not betting on this spontaneously occurring on a significant scale in the next ten years. Other than having a world rave with plenty of chemical assistance, I can’t work out how to trigger such a Mass Awakening, and the logistics of planning that party would stump even “Saint” Bob.

So it’s back to “boring” lobbying politicians, fundraising, getting one’s message in the media, research and writing and all that other good stuff.

Only it’s not boring! Learning techniques that can make a campaigner more effective can actually be surprisingly fun and exciting, children. Certainly there was a great buzz in the rooms of 15 Hatfields on March 22nd as smart, committed people working on a wide range of issues, came together to take a serious step forward in correcting the power balance between citizenry, governments and big business. There was a definite feeling in the air, sometimes expressed from the podium, that this is it: the turning point; this is when we get smart about how things work and start working them to our own collective advantage. To which I would add – instead of thinking we can just riot, pray, party, march, or abstain-from-voting our way to changing the world.

Simpol has had a bit of a hard time in the image stakes when it comes to trying to take our message to the direct action posse, which is why I have so much respect for our Grassroots Outreach Tsar, Barnaby Flynn, who bravely takes the Simpol stall to streets and festivals despite uncertain weather and sceptics.

One memorable incident he recalled to me involved the ignoble fate of Simpol flyers that had been dropped off at anarchist coffee-house the Cowley Club, in Brighton. When my worthy colleague went back to see if any had been taken, he found that they now had VOTING WANK scrawled across the front. It’s funny…only it’s not!

Trying to pick up Simpol supporters at Climate Camp 2006, which I did with Barnaby, was equally hilarious as half the people had made-up names and/or didn’t vote and/or didn’t have an address / email / phone number and who regarded us with deep suspicion when we mentioned proudly that we had cross-party MP support. I love these people’s commitment to physically showing up and participating in spectacles, but we need more than that. We need some of us to be sitting at the meeting table where the decisions get inked, as well as a bunch of us making noise in the streets outside the meeting room.

So it was incredibly relieving and gratifying that People Power was packed with people that had figured this out already and were making sure to spread that knowledge and with it the tools to deploy our power.

One person who should certainly know from experience what it takes to achieve seemingly impossible agreements is Quintin Oliver, Director of Stratagem, a lobbying firm based in Northern Ireland, which delivers valuable consulting advice for organisations needing to engage with government. It was heartening to see him take a strong stance on charities being overtly political, an absurd restriction regarding which frightens many into being mealy-mouthed. It was with great relish that he recounted advising charity reps on how far they could go without losing their funding, which turned out to be quite a bit further than they thought.

Then, Oliver’s experience on the groundbreaking “Good Friday Agreement” of 1998 formed the background to a stimulating presentation exploring the successful semiotics of powerful lobbying. If a memorable message can be quickly delivered with arresting images and concise slogans then your campaign (coffers) will receive an enormous boost. Coca Cola knows this, so we have to be clever about it too.

This of course is one of the challenges facing Simpol, regarding which I sought advice at the conference. Put simply, it is a real head-scratcher to come up with a snappy, clever, CONCISE way to lucidly transmit a methodological concept that takes at least 10 minutes to explain properly! We have no cute animal to save, no specific disaster to avoid; the disaster we are trying to avoid is already happening, in the form of doing everything the same old way that’s already failed. But how do you pitch a paradigm shift?

Fortunately, there are people who just might possibly have the answer to this question and I met one of them in the form of Chris Norman, of co-hosting organization the Good Agency, with whom I instantly decided I’ll be meeting very soon. Clearly there is both a science and an art to advertising, and when the “product” is a rather big idea, there is just as clearly a need for a further refinement of these techniques. I hope to know more about this soon. Watch this space! (If I could just get everybody to realize that Simpol supporters are better-looking, more intelligent and have fresher breath….)

There isn’t space here to cover all the other activities of the day, but it must be said that SMK didn’t shy away from that annoying issue all campaigns must face – the getting of money; this was confronted in an excellent session on fundraising featuring Stephen Pittam of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and Martin O’Brien from the Atlantic Philanthropies. After getting to gently tease Pittam in public for turning Simpol down a couple of years ago, I asked him to talk about his main comment to us then, which actually I completely understood, regarding the unfortunate difficulties of funding what he termed “visionary programmes”. He explained that when it comes to formal gifting there is an all too familiar paradox at play: although it is exactly such long-range visions that are needed, the whole culture of philanthropy is stacked in favour of short-term deliverables. (Hmm. Sounds a lot like big business.) Rowntree does write cheques for multiple-year projects, such as the quest for the Freedom of Information Act which went into double digits, but not many and not often. But all is not lost; the session also confirmed my growing conviction that Simpol has an excellent case for getting some privately-held ballpoints moving if our mission strains against the restrictions and requirements of institutional grant-giving. That even becomes part of the pitch if you see what I mean. Aha! Perhaps I’m starting to think like a real campaigner at last!
On the production side of things, I have to say that despite an initial timing setback, courtesy of London Transport, this was one of the most smoothly-run and well-focused events I’ve attended. There was absolutely no wind-baggery from either podium or floor, no 15 minute comments masquerading as questions, and as Nicholas Parsons might put it, everyone managed to reach the bell without repetition, deviation or hesitation. That really is rare and helped make People Power 2011 what I can only call a “slam dunk” – despite my aversion to misappropriated sports lingo.

I can now announce that this is going to be an annual event, so start planning for 2012, oh people of power!

I can’t think of any better conclusion than to leave you with some lyrics from another great female hell-raiser, renegade rock-poet Patti Smith. I ask that you pay special attention to her use of the word “decreed”. A decree is usually defined as “an authoritative order having the force of law” and that usually means ink on paper folks, so if you’re one of us that want to see real, permanent, global changes for the better, within our lifetime; then I suggest you get yourself in touch with the good people at SMK, who aren’t just preparing the leaders of tomorrow, they’re equipping the shaker-uppers of today so we can get some new decrees.

The power to dream / to rule
to wrestle the world from fools
it’s decreed the people rule
it’s decreed the people rule
I believe everything we dream
can come to pass through our union
we can turn the world around
we can turn the earth’s revolution
we have the power
People have the power …

© Patti Smith, “People Have the Power”, 1998


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