How to get active

My first experience of leading a campaign was forced on me - the world was being screwed up by leaders who were determined to embark on an unjust war with Iraq, despite clear evidence that most of the population disagreed with them. It began to seem like democracy was being ignored and we couldn't make a difference.

We started by protesting outside Parliament – even though we found that it was depicted as 'bunking off' by a national media that couldn't understand our action would've been slightly less effective after school: in the dark when the politicians have all gone home…

We needed to take the message straight to these politicians that they might try not to listen but they were damn well going to see us and read about our opposition to their criminal foreign policy.

We weren't bound by party policy or any idea of how a campaign should run. We made our placards and took to the streets. Being young meant we were rash or confident enough not to worry about conventions or rules and our stand won us national coverage. In many ways it's the reason I'm writing now.

Removed from real life?

They were such optimistic days, and really gave me a passion for getting off the sidelines. Now I'm at university I haven't got off my soapbox. I'm still fighting for what I see as justice – but the rules have changed and so, inevitably, have I.

Because despite that early experience in my teenage years, university came as something of a shock. How to deal with the bureaucracy of uni clubs, how to ingratiate yourself with the existing volunteers – even how to turn up in the right place at the right time and feel like anything more than a confused bystander!

It sometimes seems like university removes you further from real life politics by encasing all your hard work and action in a campus-shaped bubble, and to me it felt like the actions of dedicated college representatives and volunteers were little more than pre-determined attempts to follow the script of 'good' activism.

After all, uni clubs are safe – bound by their contract to remain law abiding, demonstrably removed from mainstream politics, and rarely able to act with autonomy or innovation. They don't automatically feel like a way to fight against ideals entrenched in society or to make a tangible difference.

It took me over a year to find my own place in the uni campaigning scene. I realised I was happier working by myself than dedicating myself to climbing established hierarchies. I appreciate the control over what I am trying to change and how, when, where and why I was trying to change it.

Call to action

I've launched a website – at www.handsupfor.org – which aims to provide other young people with a toolkit for getting started, finding out and sharing further information. This lets me share information both with other people from my university and with the wider world, grounding our achievements in a more real political context – something especially important when you're at a uni where the students feel slightly out of touch with the concept of hardship or poverty…

I work now as part of a variety of horizontal networks, not based on hierarchical notions of command but on the sharing of knowledge, working practices, research and resources. I've begun to see that university isn't about dedicating yourself to a single cause or career - its about discovering what's out there and how you relate to that on a personal, emotional and intellectual level.

I didn't want to climb the union ladder or edit the paper, but have become increasingly surprised by the difference I can make through simple engagement with college groups and integrating this with the Hands Up campaign. The Hands Up manifesto, available on the site, sets out 6 key demands in a programme aiming to 'level the political baseline'

By this I mean providing easy – and, importantly, non-directional – routes into activism, volunteering and campaigning through a whole plethora of legislative changes. Now I'm back in college, looking for support and modification of these points by my peers. After all, I've come to realise that it's only by working together that we can achieve change. So why not get in touch?

Kierra Box co-founded Hands Up For Peace in February 2003 when she was 17. She is a patron of the National Youth Agency and a trustee of the Young People Now Foundation.
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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.