Campaigning and Policy

We have been encouraged to think about the role of campaigning and the influence it has on policy, so here is a personal contribution to start the discussion.

When younger I was very active in the Animal Rights movement. I worked within the campaigning organisations, some new, some old, to see where politics of the more traditional sort fitted.  I was, and still am, an advocate of non violent direct action and of the ideas more prominent then of total campaigning – not just marches, demos and articles but picketing premises, consumer boycotts, targeting key people and companies (including shareholder action), and occasional trespass or damage to property.

Animal Liberation

We live in a democracy but where it is flawed through undue influences, the exercise of powerful vested interests or corruption we can challenge it, and take the consequences as many did with violence inflicted on them, with cautions, fines, and custodial sentences.

I have no doubt that our activities then increased public awareness around issues like animal experimentation, hunting, live exports, whaling and the fur trade and raised awareness that you could question our societal attitudes towards exploitation of other species.  I rate the high point as the Manifesto for Animals which Labour adopted and used in the 1979 election campaign; had we defeated Mrs Thatcher the world for animals as well as for humans would have been a far better place.

The objective for those who accepted politics had a role was to get laws passed; laws which protected animals but which also set a moral background – for example saying society in general agrees that cruelty to pets in not an ownership issue (my property so I can do what I like), it was a criminal offence – something society would not tolerate.

There are many examples of movements which challenge existing ideas (gay marriage is a contemporary one perhaps), win the argument, get the law changed – but more importantly establish new norms which twenty years later are seen as the new orthodoxy.  We were active not just in parliament but also using powers local authorities had, for example to ban circuses from council owned land.  So whilst many broke the law they also knew that the law could be used and changed – so politics came into the equation.

Within the “movement” were many disparate ideas of what was effective.  Many were highly vociferous about rejecting all forms of traditional politics as pointless, with party politics the worst; everything could be changed by taking action.  It was unclear if this led to a revolutionary stance – overthrowing the democratic order.  The arguments were passionate and the splits and internal infighting within the movement is the stuff of legend (I attended an AGM when Inspector Knacker burst in and actually did read the Riot Act).

Our aim was to change attitudes and opinions – to make the vast majority accept that exploitation of animals was wrong.  We believed the issue had great resonance with similar campaigns to end slavery, emancipate women, and the ending of all forms of discrimination. Such movements worked because they built campaigns on a grand scale but they took generations to succeed.

We built a coherent narrative about what was wrong and what could change if we had the will to change it.  We exposed how most arguments against our position were based not on morality or even utility – so for example people hunted and killed for the pleasure they got, not to control “vermin” or even for economic again – so we battered down the arguments of the opposition.  If anything opinions have moved the wrong way in the last 30 years!!!

And so to today and the NHS and the role for campaigning.

The three strands are still appropriate.  Direct action to confront immediate issues; communications and argument to change attitudes, spread the truth and challenge bogus positions and vested interests; AND political action to bring in new laws and new structures.  The political action means specifically lobbying a party to adopt the necessary policies, getting that party into power and ensuring when in power it delivers on its promises.  All elements are necessary. None will be enough on its own.

My take on today and the NHS is that the campaigning is still ineffective in terms of policy change.  It fails the test of having both a reasonable critique of the current situation and a credible narrative about what it should be changed into – but the issues around the NHS are perhaps less easily defined.

I often perceive that campaigners are generally only talking (or more usually shouting) amongst themselves. They find it hard to engage with those who they disagree with and too often opt to denigrate the opinions of others.  I have a lot of books about policy making in health and the message I get is that the history of policy making is dominated by ideas from vested interests first, party ideologues (and their SPADs or equivalent) second, everything else last. It is hard to think of a major policy in health that can be attributed to campaigning pressure.

So local campaigns can win concessions but policy is not changed because of the campaigning by activists.