Shaping debate on religion in public life.

All I Want for Christmas is a Brand New Policy

9 Dec 2015

As we all prepare to celebrate the nativity, and perhaps, as Eve Poole suggested in her recent blog, to avoid the excesses of  Saturnalia, the Solstice or the secular Winterbinge, our thoughts can easily turn to what we would really long for and pray for in the year to come. For most of us that might be summed up as world peace and a complete end to poverty and injustice as captured in the angelic chorus of “peace on earth and goodwill to all people”.

Yet we all know that the way to such a goal is a steep, rocky and slippery one; it is so much easier just to make a few donations to our favourite charities. Nonetheless from numerous platforms and pulpits I continue to hear illustrations to the effect that if you see casualties floating down a river you need to go upstream, clamber up to the cliff-tops above the canyon and find out who is pushing people over the edge. It is a call to political action and campaigning; though for me, that is where the hardest questions begin. One wonders after all, how Caesar Augustus would have responded to a boycott of the census for his poll tax, or King Herod to a non-violent intervention shielding toddlers from the atrocities in Bethlehem, or the border guards to a camel lift evacuation of refugees organized by the good folk of Egypt.

Many people who long and pray for an end to the poverty and injustice they perceive in the UK today, will conclude what is needed is a change of government and chose to work through political parties. However, in our current democratic system, there is little prospect of that at the current stage of the electoral cycle, and quite possibly for several parliaments to come. Moreover, such party politics is not really appropriate for churches and charities, and may even be illegal. So we are left with the option of campaigning on particular issues, hoping that in some ways we can shape or moderate policy for the better, or at least for the less bad. Current opportunities abound, on climate change, Syria, Trident, benefit sanctions, and refugees, to name but a handful. We trust that as people of faith most of the stances we take up will be on the side of the angels. Yet while it may be easy enough to pick our issues and justify them by moral reasoning, it is always wrong and dangerous to presume that God is on our side, even though the message of the incarnation is that God is with us.

Over the course of my adult life there are numerous campaigns that I’ve supported which have to some extent had a measurable successful impact (for example, anti-apartheid, disabled rights, Jubilee 2000 etc.) or at least are making progress. Other issues such as disarmament and the prevention of war, improved housing and welfare rights, restrictions on Sunday trading, and freedom from state surveillance have met entrenched opposition from powerful forces in government and big business and leave me with disappointment and despair.

So I’m left pondering the question of how we should campaign. Indeed, what makes campaigning effective in a liberal democratic state, in a globally connected information society like our world today?

With increasing numbers of us spending huge amounts of our time online, it is tempting to sign and share every petition that flashes up on our screens, and to think that this is adequate political action. Do we live in the age of “clickocracy”? Some causes do indeed rapidly go viral, like the picture of a drowned child that changed the narrative on refugees coming to Europe. However, amusing videos of cats also spread exponentially across the web. And while 100,000 signatures should trigger a parliamentary debate in the UK, it probably takes several million to change a government’s mind over policy. Some commentators such as Castells have argued that in an era of communication power “the horizontality of networks supports cooperation and solidarity while undermining the need for formal leadership”. However, this can be challenged on the basis of the mathematics of social network analysis. Activists who sit at particular nodes of a network structure, will have and can apply disproportionate amounts of bridging social capital to bring political influence to bear, while most of us can only play minor roles.

Yet while social media has some power from below, our society still relies on broadcast media and the press to share news and shape narratives. Thus elites remain disproportionately powerful, and are drawn almost entirely from metropolitan privileged social classes. So although campaign groups are increasingly conscious of the need to be media savvy, and develop numerous techniques and stunts to grab media attention, the take up of their stories and press releases remains prone to random effects. There are always competing stories and too often bad days on which to bury good news. Furthermore, professional politicians are highly skilled at manipulating the media and ensuring that their narratives dominate the news. Even when it seems they have been forced to give in the face of overwhelming public opinion and well organised parliamentary opposition, the art of spin can help them turn defeat into victory.

So do we take to the streets in demonstrations, strikes or other irritating and attention grabbing forms of direct action? Left wing radicals have long favoured this approach, but therein lies the problem. It becomes too easy for the powerful to marginalize such action as the rantings and ravings of dangerous extremists. Where they can’t be ignored they can often be suppressed, generally with the approval of moderate public opinion. And even the greatest mass demonstrations of people power, such as the million strong march against the invasion of Iraq have been easily ignored by determined and powerful governments.

What then are the keys to successful campaigning in western societies today? It seems to me that for campaigns to be effective they need to be operating in a space where at least four criteria overlap:

  1. The campaign must be about something where a change of policy would make a real difference to some or many people’s lives.
  2. It must have a broad based public appeal, either because the majority of people will benefit, or the majority perceive that an obvious and grievous injustice is at stake.
  3. It must be realistically winnable – for example while almost everyone would like to benefit from 20 weeks paid holiday a year at government expense, this is not going to be granted, and most people will recognize it as an idle dream.
  4. It needs to put pressure directly on the appropriate decision makers (be they local or national politicians, businesses or health professionals) and demonstrate that to resist would affect their real interests, for example that they could lose money, reputation or key votes in forthcoming elections.

In many respects these principles are familiar to the advocates of broad based community organising in the tradition of Saul Alinsky as currently practised by Citizens UK, and eruditely examined in Luke Bretherton’s recent book.

As people of hope, rejoicing in the Christmas message, we must not despair if our campaigns and lobbying fail to bring rapid results. Sometimes it is simply our duty to continue to witness to the possibility of a better world, and to persevere in our prayers and advocacy which may lead to a long term change of culture. One thinks of Wilberforce agitating against slavery for thirty years, of the suffragettes, of Mandela in jail on Robbin Island. And in remembering these campaigns we can raise our voices in the familiar carol:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing.

For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever-circling years, shall come the Age of Gold;
When peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendours fling,
And all the world give back the song, which now the angels sing

A very Happy Christmas to you all.

Greg Smith is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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1 Comment

Greg Smith

09/12/2015 11:41

also worth reading Juliet Kilpin’s blog

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