What has made the women on banknotes campaign so successful?

A petition calling for the Bank of England to include women on banknotes has garnered over 30,000 signatures. Social media and a tangible, realistic goal have helped its success.

This morning, campaigners dressed as influential British women presented a petition to the Bank of England to keep women on banknotes. Elizabeth Fry, the only woman on our currency who isn't the Queen, is set to be replaced by Winston Churchill. But the campaign, led by Caroline Criado-Perez has been building momentum. Alongside the over 30,000 people who have signed her petition, she now has the support of Ed Miliband. The new governor of the Bank, Mark Carney, has promised to look into the matter. On Threadneedle Street today there was plenty of interest from press and passers-by. But what has made the campaign so successful?

The internet has obviously had a significant role to play. Criado-Perez says it allows messages to “spread like wildfire” and provides women with ways of making themselves heard. On TV and Radio, “women tend to be the object of stories; they’ll be victims or case studies and won’t necessarily have a voice themselves”. On the web, they are commentators and activists, enthusiastically getting behind campaigns like this one. She cites other growing feminist movements No More Page 3 and Everyday Sexism, both of which have effectively harnessed the power of social media.

Making use of the internet has been vital, but it has been what campaigners call the ‘tangibility’ of the issue that has captured the public’s attention. Banknotes have a physical presence in our lives, they populate our wallets (or not, in my case) and form a part of our interactions with others. Vicky Beeching, an academic and broadcaster who has been involved in the campaign told me, “There’s a very physical payoff here. We are actually campaigning about something we are all very familiar with – it’s not an ethereal, kind of pie-in-the-sky type thing … We’ve got a clear goal and it’s hopefully a very achievable one.”

Criado-Perez maintains that the threat of litigation has also been important in getting a response from the Bank. She says, “I think they probably felt it was quite easy to brush of annoying women just making a noise. But it’s much harder to brush off a legal, technical point that says actually you haven’t considered the Equalities Act.” Using funds she has raised through online donations, she is now in the position to force the institution through an embarrassing legal battle, should it be required. This has given the petition and the campaign as a whole, considerably more clout.

A further reason for the success of the campaign is that it taps into the wider injustice of poor gender representation. Brie Rogers Lowery, the Campaigns Director at Change.org, the website which hosts the petition, said: "Caroline's campaign has been a perfect example of online movement building - finding an accessible, everyday example of a deeper, more complex issue.” Criado-Perez added, “It’s a really sort of good jumping off point to talk about wider issues about how we expect public institutions to behave and women’s representation overall in lots of different areas.”

By making the most of a flourishing online feminist community, identifying a tangible and achievable goal and keeping legal action very much on the table, the banknotes campaign has got off to an promising start. It has entered the public conciousness, is making headway in the political establishment and looks set to go from strength to strength. Others would do well to learn from it.

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Photos from today's event:

Photos from Vicki Couchman.

Campaigners outside the Bank of England. Photo: Vicki Couchman.

James is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in UK politics and social commentary. His blog can be found hereYou can follow him on Twitter @jamesevans42.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit