Changing the world takes more than a flash-in-the-pan campaign

Good things come to those who wait.

Changing the world isn’t like an instant weight loss programme. Campaigning to make our surroundings a bit more bearable is not a quick win. Nowadays, if you want to lose weight there is a huge buffet (excuse the food reference) of options available to you, from not eating sugar to the tasty cabbage soup diet. Equally, if you want to change the world there are a host of “quick fix” campaigns.  “Like” this link on Facebook, sign this e-petition or occupy one Vodafone shop on one day for one hour and everything will be just fine.

The problem is that we have evolved at an alarmingly fast rate to want, want, want, now, now, now. Take 38 Degrees' latest campaign to force McDonalds and Coca-Cola not to dodge their Olympics tax. It flew off the shelves like the latest miracle diet pill, getting 165,000 signatures in days and forcing two corporations to pull out of the scheme. One little snag - tax avoidance and the dilemmas of corporate sponsorship have not been won. 38 Degrees is a great tactic and tool for campaigning but it is not the answer to systemic change.

It might, however, be the answer to the public's need for a quick fix campaign that takes five seconds to do. But change doesn’t happen with a few Facebook likes. Just imagine if those 165,000 people actually got up and did something!

Yes, active campaigning is hard, time-consuming and often we won’t see the results in our lifetime, but it’s worth it, right? These days a sustained campaign is one that lasts about three months whereas the suffragette movement lasted about 30 years! 30 years! And women are still fighting for equality.

On the other side, UK Uncut has been fighting the cuts for 21 months and has kids, people with disabilities, single mothers, activists, old aged pensioners and people from varied backgrounds on their actions that happen offline and in real life.

Of course it's nice to be able to pop along for a quick rally or sign a one-off petition, but it's just not enough. Campaigning might not be for everyone, but neither is poverty and injustice. Of course we need balance. A balance between the "quick hit" protest  junkies and those entrenched campaigners that harp on about the same old thing day in and day out.

The key is finding something tangible, real, exciting, new and possibly that captures people’s spirits for the long haul. It’s like exercise and a good diet versus not having carbohydrates for a week; we all know which one is the winner in the long-term.

Molly Solomons is a UK Uncut activist.

 

A woman holds a banner outside a branch of Vodafone in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496