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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.