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Last Updated: Friday, 11 March, 2005, 11:52 GMT
The New Politics in Britain

by Stokes Jones
Social anthropologist

What kind of people engage in grass roots activism? What are the characteristics and motivations they have in common and how do they go about setting up and running a campaign?

Stokes Jones of research company Lodestar, explains the anatomy of a campaign.

Tony Blair at Downing Street after winning the 2001 election
There was a sense of political apathy after the 2001 election

After low voter turnout in the 2001 General Election, the BBC registered a prevailing mood of political apathy in the UK.

But it was soon broadsided by the widespread protest against fuel taxes.

Perhaps apathy was not what people were feeling after all; instead maybe the passion in politics had just migrated to a level below the BBC's radar?

So it decided to develop a new resource on the web that would give potential 'grass roots campaigners' tools to help them take action.

The BBC knew the success of the service would depend in large part on how well it was designed to meet campaigner's specific needs.

Local issues

People who become grass roots campaigners are no different from you and I

Therefore before the site (now called iCan) could be planned and fully conceived, its designers had to know: How do grass roots campaigns get started?

What do campaigners need at various stages of their campaigns, as well as; What kind of people are they? and, How should we speak to them?

I was commissioned by the BBC to try and make sense of this 'people power' phenomenon - and the type of people fuelling it.

We investigated 12 diverse campaigns and campaigners from across England, Wales and Scotland; gathering the histories of these campaigns from their activists' earliest stirrings, through to their completion (if they were finished) and monitoring their ongoing progress if not. We then mapped each on an exhaustive timeline.

We found that for most of the people studied their energy and enthusiasm had waned for top-down national politics. And what had made them come alive politically was campaigning on bottom-up local issues.

Proper politics

Bristol Royal Infirmary protest
A poignant protest left by Bristol Royal Infirmary campaigners

The kind of issues that had made them come alive politically included controlling the placement of phone masts, stopping planning permissions, the siting of asylum centres and the accountability of NHS healthcare trusts - all of which we examined in this study.

In the words of German sociologist Ulrich Beck, we discovered "It is no exaggeration to say that citizen-initiative groups have taken power politically".

Or less ambiguously, that it is through such groups that people feel they can best engage politically ┐ not in the high politics of ideology and the creation of party platforms.

These are areas that in the past were not considered the proper focus of 'politics', but are certainly highly 'political' since they involve the negotiation of opposing interests.

And what they have in common is; if not managed correctly they directly affect the quality of life of these individuals and the people around them.

The strongest motivation for campaigners was the desire to protect the people and place where they live.

Different catalysts

The initial catalyst to start campaigning can be varied: one man got tired of his wife and daughters being harassed by kerbcrawlers, so started looking into prostitution in the area

Other characteristics defining the kind of people willing to start campaigns are some combination of the following: moral and religious convictions, the need to combat the passive attitudes of others around them, the desire to share their skills, the influence of mentors, and worries about the abuse of power.

People who become grass roots campaigners are no different from you and I in any way other than at some point they show the ability to act 'in the moment' - becoming aware of an issue, then realising if they don't do something about it, no one will.

Leo, a campaigner for affordable housing in Cornwall, shows the humility and practical focus of this breed when he says: "I never desired to start a group or be part of a movement┐I just see things around where I live that need sorting out, and I try to sort them."

The initial catalyst to start campaigning can be varied: one man got tired of his wife and daughters being harassed by kerbcrawlers, so started looking into prostitution in the area; while one woman campaigner's daughter had died after treatment in the Bristol Royal Infirmary that became the centre of the scandal over infant heart deaths.

However, from this point on, we found campaigns usually evolve in remarkably similar ways.

Most of the public focuses on the dramatic acts of 'protest' in campaigns such as: The Bristol campaigners putting miniature coffins outside the General Medical Council (winning them an inquiry) or the marches to stop Rugby airport.


Protests against airport expansion
Researchers followed a protest march against airport expansion

But these are often only the culminating - if decisive - events that follow longer periods of sustained activity and subtler behind the scenes pressure.

In fact 'protesting' was but the final phase of a four-part process. Discovering, deciding, planning and acting.

Since the goal of the iCan website was to facilitate people to take action ┐ we had to understand the full campaign cycle and support campaigners across all its phases.

The hypothesis that we confirmed was that many people who wanted to take action got discouraged and dropped out before a campaign even got started.

Therefore a key role for the iCan website should be to get them over the early obstacles by providing potential campaigners with general information (about bodies like the planning authorities), advice, contacts, and encouragement.

Crusaders and watchdogs

We found these 'tools' we placed online would be useful to almost all campaigns since they had the same general tasks of deciding how to approach an issue, formulate a strategy, recruit fellow campaigners with the necessary skills, influence those in power through formal mechanisms, and finally, make successful demonstrations.

Finally we identified the four essential types of campaigners and the trajectories that campaigns take: from 'Sympathisers' who follow an issue, to 'First Timers' who begin an initial campaign.

We also discovered that campaigning is addictive. So 'First Timers' buoyed by their impact often morph into 'Crusaders' who pursue their single issue at a national level.

Or they become 'Neighbourhood Watchdogs' who keep their local focus but campaign on multiple issues there.

Since we found grass roots campaigning only breeds further campaigning as its influence is felt, we expect the shift toward people power politics to continue into the future with full force.

People Power, a BBC documentary which examines what makes ordinary people take to the streets in order to protest their frustration at unfairness and injustice on a single issue, was broadcast on Sunday, March 13, 2005 at 2215GMT on BBC One.

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