Reclaim the Night: how analog campaigning can triumph in an age of archair activism

Modern feminism is all webzines and change.org, but there is a lot to be said still for campaigns like Reclaim the Night, launced in a time when there were no hashtags, no Facebook event, and no Instagrams of placards.

When Philadelphia student Susan Alexander Speeth was stabbed to death walking home one night, her fellow women on campus, furious at being advised by police to stay indoors in the aftermath, staged the first Take Back The Night. Within two years, the concept - women-only marches, publicly marching in protest against violence against women - had spread to Italy, West Germany and Belgium, hitting the UK as angry Reclaim the Night rallies against the ridiculous “don’t go out” police response to the Ripper murders. It was the late Seventies, and the idea had crossed continents despite the internet being no more than a gleam in an LED.

It’s still spreading without much technological help. When Reclaim the Night was revived in 2004 by activist Finn MacKay and the London Feminist Network, Facebook was still in its infancy, and Twitter had yet to hatch. There were no hashtags, no Facebook event, no Instagrams of placards. Today, it has a sparsely used Facebook page and no Twitter account.

Compare it with the rest of modern feminism, all webzines and change.org, and Reclaim the Night seems a little old-fashioned. Despite having its roots in flaming postboxes, modern feminism is a cyber beast. We’ve embraced the web like billy-o, because it’s given us something often hard-fought for: a place to air and share opinions freely. This year alone, as a result of online campaigns, Twitter and Facebook have taken steps against sexist abuse, a woman has been kept on UK bank notes, and lads mags have been removed from Co-Op shelves.

In the context of all of this, Reclaim the Night’s offering is little analog. “RTN does have a Facebook page and lots of the organisers are on Twitter publicising it,” says MacKay, but that’s hardly a full blown social media presence. And yet - in this world of armchair activism - people still come. MacKay isn't abashed at all at the event’s online under involvement, and why should she be? It’s a success without it.

Both she and event organiser Sarah Bell underline how many activists come back year after year, due to the uplifting air of the protest and, more importantly, because of what they’re marching for. “All women have experienced feeling intimidated on a dark street,” says Bell. Harriet Vickers, a marcher, agrees. “Get my keys out coming up to my door so I can go straight in. Walk in the best lit areas of the road. We do these things all the time, every day, even though it's not our fault and not our responsibility to change our behaviour. That’s why I marched.”

The physical, boot-stomping nature of the protest is a big draw too. “Actually reclaiming parts of London where I'd been tense,” Harriet continues, “shouting about the problem rather than avoiding it, felt bloody brilliant.” MacKay backs this up. She states proudly that “ultimately [Reclaim the Night is] obviously a piece of direct physical action,” that “the role of direct action and face to face meetings cannot be forgotten.”

She’s right of course, and digital activists would do well to embrace the value of face-to-face, in person protests. They don’t just feel more satisfying to Harriet and thousands of others like her, but they’re undeniable. 100 tweets to a company’s PR account can be swept under the carpet; 100 angry protesters at a company’s head office cannot - at least not so easily. For Reclaim the Nighters, social media is used to organise protest, rather than becoming the protest itself - and this combination of tweet-savviness and placard brandishing may be where the future lies.

To see how it may work, it’s worth turning attention from the London “flagship” Reclaim the Night, and onto its often under-reported sister marches across the UK. Largely organised by tech-savvy students who couldn’t rely on what MacKay calls the “second wave” legacy of the London event, they relied heavily on social media to get people out on the streets.  Sophie Butcher, who organised the 2012 Basingstoke event, says Twitter and Facebook played a “huge part in the success” whilst Tabz O’Brien-Butcher of last year’s event in Manchester says they went  out of their way to “engage with the wider community” across social networks. Both Basingstoke and Manchester were considered successes not just for their engagement on social media, but the effect they had - getting large numbers of people out on the streets, putting the questions raised by the demonstration into the heart of the community.

In a few weekend’s time, a big player in the digital feminist movement, No More Page 3, will be holding a weekend of direct action. They’ve already encouraged guerilla felt-tip pen clothing of Page 3, and leafleting newsagents, but 16 November will be a big test of how easy it is to convert petitions to placards. This feminist for one will be joining in, and encouraging others to do the same. It’s about time we really took back the streets.

 

A Take Back the Night march in Mexico. Photo: WikiCommons
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad