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
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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.