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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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

Via Getty

“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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