From pro-hunt rallies to fuel blockades, media-backed direct action campaigns have repeatedly captured the political agenda in the Blair years

Kirsty Milne
Tuesday March 15, 2005
The Guardian

http://media.guardian.co.uk/marketingandpr/story/0,7494,1438081,00.html

The budget is ready, the parties are poised. Everyone is braced for a general election – except the electorate. Pollsters predict a turnout lower even than the 59% of 2001. Politicians warn against apathy, evoking the image of a public too inert to heave itself off the sofa.
Yet outside conventional politics, civic life is far from inert. From pro-hunting rallies to fuel blockades, from raids on GM crops to demonstrations against the Iraq war, surges of single-issue protest have marked Tony Blair’s years in power. They suggest that voters, far from being apathetic, have interests that do not fit party platforms and are seeking other outlets of expression.

Popular protest has a history, so why pay any more attention to it now than 30 or 300 years ago? What is new is the congruence of protest, a partisan press in search of causes and an electorate whose anxieties are not being represented.

Direct action tends to be bracketed with the left. But the Countryside Alliance, fuel protesters and section 28 campaigners championed causes associated with the right. Protest has been reclaimed by anyone who feels their identity under threat, be they foxhunting polo-players or villagers with Gypsies on their doorstep.

These are issues that parties have been slow to spot or reluctant to take on. The fuel protests in September 2000 caught ministers unawares, although they knew from focus groups that the price of petrol annoyed voters. Hunting and section 28 belonged naturally to the Tories, yet the party had to run to catch up. A nationwide consultation found mistrust of GM crops, yet it was ignored by the prime minister.

The political vacuum has been filled by the press. The Countryside Alliance has been able to count on powerful allies at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. In Scotland it was the Daily Record, a Labour-supporting paper, that led the campaign to stop repeal of section 28. The fuel protesters were hailed by the Sun and the Mail, both of which backed a cut in petrol duty, as honest folk whose tolerance had snapped. The Mail, its finger on middle England’s pulse, has even opposed GM crops, featuring Jude Law’s designer activism.

Faced with falling circulation and competition from the internet, newspapers are joining a 21st-century mutation of the picket line. The alliance is symbiotic. Protesters want instant attention, usually from government; the press wants instant attention from readers. Things have changed since the 80s and early 90s, when striking miners and poll-tax resisters would have hardly made bedfellows for right-of-centre papers. The Iraq protests had backing from the Mirror, Guardian and Independent. But the broadening of the protest spectrum suits editors and owners who dislike the Blair administration and what they see as its pro-tax, politically correct agenda.

This is not to suggest an invincible media conspiracy. None of these protests succeeded in its primary aims. Gordon Brown did not slash duty on ordinary petrol. The government banned fox-hunting, though it took seven years, and repealed section 28 north and south of the border. The decision not to go ahead with GM crops was taken by biotech firms, which proved more sensitive than ministers to public opinion.

The success of the press-protest axis lies in short-lived coalitions that capture the political agenda. The hunting ban mutated from an animal welfare measure into a debate about freedom and the countryside. Fuel blockades established motorists as a martyred class and made it politically impossible to raise duty. Section 28 was rehabilitated as vital for protecting children and even marriage, leaving the Scottish parliament nervous of legislating on anything relating to morality or family values.

What’s wrong with that, a robust editor will ask. Papers respond to opinion, and it is not their fault if they make a better job of it than politicians. When the governing party has a big majority and a weak opposition, they act as a safety valve for dissent.

They also get results. Party policy forums may toil away, but it only takes a handful of campaigners and a newspaper to stop a hospital closure or speed the deportation of asylum-seekers. For a generation that can vote someone out of the Big Brother house in minutes, a month-long media uproar makes more sense than waiting four or five years to express a view.

But the press is going further, using dissent to challenge the legitimacy of elected politicians. The Record’s unofficial referendum on section 28 drew 1.2m votes – from a population of 5 million – with the vast majority opting to keep the clause. The Mail followed suit with its 2003 ballot on whether the EU constitution should be put to a referendum, a demand Tony Blair conceded a year later. This time 1.7m votes were received, with 89% in favour. Despite the lack of oversight and scope for multiple voting, these numbers are hard to ignore.

Press protest matters, for reasons heartening and disturbing. The good news is that people have not given up on politics. They may not care to vote yet feel strongly, if intermittently, on single issues such as cannabis laws or asylum – and could be engaged through some form of direct democracy.

The bad news is that newspapers create their own political ecology, a one-party state of yes/no answers where the majority wins and the losers are, Big Brother-style, evicted. The Sun’s campaign against Gypsies (“Stamp on the camps”) shows how press protest tends to close off compromise on issues that divide us.

· Kirsty Milne is the author of Manufacturing Dissent: Single-Issue Protest, the Public and the Press, published by Demos on Thursday

http://media.guardian.co.uk/marketingandpr/story/0,7494,1438081,00.html

Advertisements