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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle