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Campaign, Petition, Protest: But where is the movement?

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Jewish refugee children arrive in London, 1939 (Wikimedia Commons)

As part of International Human Rights Day (10 December), the part Sheffield played the Kindertransport, which brought 10,000 Jewish children to safety in the UK before the Second World War, was proudly celebrated. Among others, the presence of Lord Alfred Dubs provided living-history evidence of what it means to achieve tangible results when individuals act in solidarity.

Spin forward 60 years and the explosion - literally, in the case of France's Gilets Jaunes - of single and multi-issue groups seems exponential. The Kindertransport, a superhuman example of courage on the part of its instigators, beneficiaries and host families, has great resonance with the humanitarian crises which are now part of our everyday imagery, as in Syria and Yemen. The key difference is in the result and outcome.

Can we find common threads across the decades of social and political history?

It's too early to say whether Brexit has been the catalyst for a different style of political engagement, political re-alignment, or whether petition politics is more effective than the physicality of the Jaunes. But can we find common threads across the decades of social and political history? Are these distinctive groups the new proto politics?

Studies of grassroots mass phenomena draw a distinction between those movements which stand 'for' or 'against' something, to summarise crudely. Digital era grassroot membership now speeds up the integrated parts of the whole: recruitment, purpose, manifesto, policy development, strategy and tactics. Meetings, online or in person, are no longer confined to the vagaries of the printed flyer or a set programme of branch activity, but arranged in a flash, creating flash mob politics.

Depending on your view of social history, this apparent high-level of political interest and engagement should be something to celebrate. A rising-up, an awakening of political awareness? Probably not. The plethora of campaign movements commonly attract individuals from the same demographic. Ironically, the 'left behind' still rely on advocacy or representation to fly their flag, rather than their own direct participation.

Across Europe, impacting on every locality, austerity economics grafted onto de-unionised communities are blighted by the absence of any industrial strategy. A shrinking public sector - traditionally providing high employment from the locality - ceases to provide stable levels of income and reduces public services, compounding the pain. The million dollar question here is whether the apparent growth in grassroots activism can garner a collective, or collectivising, mentality.

The digital world seems unlikely to provide stirring solutions

The inherent danger of passionate conviction to change or protect anything is that it unwittingly breeds an inward-looking approach, leaving the super structure largely unchallenged. Brexit is a good example. Leave or remain is irrelevant if the undemocratic, unaccountable elements of the European Union are left untouched. Even more pernicious is the damage in trust and confidence of the parliamentary structure or the ability of traditional party politics to champion it.

Credible leadership, either of policy or party, may be at the centre of the issue. Large numbers of highly-visible protestors and acres of online petitions do not a revolution make. Ultimately, at some stage the barricades give way to a pragmatic committee which has to take control and usually revamps a pre-existing structure. If there is no solid foundation or manifesto, a shared understanding based on discourse and understanding, then hard-won victory is phyrric. Open politics has never sustained and the digital world seems unlikely to provide stirring solutions. The revolution, if there is one, is that the internet has contributed towards a rapid change in the expectations of what our political leaders are there for. Gordon Brown has recently called for a network of 'town assemblies' to provide the platform of discussion, something entirely absent in the run-up to the 2016 referendum.

We need inspirational deeds, not words, combined with a focussed outlet for protest-community activity, a new narrative between and within local residents and local administrations. Don't call it politics. Re-brand it. Create activities which engage and attract, as in the 64 Lanterns Armistice event in Crookes last year, where many residents participated in a moving ceremony, walking with their neighbours then chatting in the pub.

Without diverse participation in all aspects of our public administration - local, regional and national - we will remain bystanders, waiting for that little boy to point out the obvious about the Emperor's new clothes.

Julia Moore

Next article in issue 130

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