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: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.