By Tim Hardy
It was exciting to see the number of signatures on the epetition to drop the Health and Social Care Bill hit the 100,000 needed to qualify for a possible debate in parliament – but it is not going to achieve anything in itself.
The one thing the bill has already seen is debate. And the one thing we know about the coalition is that they’re not listening.
Rather comically, the Labour leadership’s immediate response to the popularity of the petition was to ask people to petition Cameron not to ignore the petition. One assumes that the absence of a privacy opt-out for people signing it reflects a certain incompetence in his digital strategy team rather than being a cynical attempt to build up a mailing list. Nonetheless, it can hardly be described as effective campaigning.
The value of the old fashioned, paper-based petition is that it forces people to go out on the streets and start knocking on doors and talking to people about the issue. It is the personal contact and the conversation that matters, not the numbers of names on a list that will be ignored.
With an epetition, this does not happen. Effortless campaigning is ineffective campaigning. Indeed, epetitions are embraced by government so they can pretend that they’re listening and when they continue with their original plans unabated they will claim that our input gives them a mandate to do so.
In her analysis of why “in an age celebrated for its communications there is no response” Jodi Dean has written on how digital campaigning provides “the fantasy of activity or participation”, displacing real activity:
My point is that the political efﬁcacy of networked media depends on its context. Under conditions of the intensive and extensive proliferation of media, messages are more likely to get lost as mere contributions to the circulation of content. What enhances democracy in one context becomes a new form of hegemony in another. Or, the intense circulation of content in communicative capitalism forecloses the antagonism necessary for politics. In relatively closed societies, that antagonism is not only already there but also apparent at and as the very frontier between open and closed
Joss Hands rejects the pessimism of such a view, while acknowledging its truths, suggesting that “connection, organisation, and antagonism can, and do, exist – and, indeed, should be sought in and through digital networks.” (@ is for Activism, p.190).
Digital campaigns tweet-storming companies – such as the recent ones coordinated by Boycott Workfare and belatedly repeated by Liberal Conspiracy – are effective because these organisations are invested in their identity in the digital domain and a threat to their brand is a threat to their livelihood.
Such campaigns are less likely to work against politicians – not least when they know there are several years until the next election and they’ll have plenty of opportunity to throw a few tax cuts as bribes to voters before then.
What we need is an open-source toolkit for campaigns that uses the power of digital networks to connect and organise people to act in ways that are more effective than just emailing, tweeting, facebook messaging or digitally signing documents. Ideally, those with the most limited means of physical participation would be able to contribute by helping craft a common message, collating and refining information relevant to the campaign, providing intelligence and communication skills. Those better placed to campaign in person would be provided with a template for their own, local, autonomous actions. Such a toolkit would look something like UK Uncut at its best but without spokespeople. We don’t have one yet. There isn’t much time left to build one.