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Acting Up

If there's one thing Britain needs it's a genuine grassroots movement for change. Could this be the start?

openDemocracy.net, 16 July 2004

If there's one thing that Britain really needs, it's a genuine grassroots movement for radical change. In one sense, all the ingredients are there. The British people, as opinion polls show again and again, are utterly disillusioned with the existing political process, and with politicians themselves. As Stuart Weir reports on this site, they believe both that ordinary people should have much more control over politics, and that they currently have hardly any at all. They also appear to be part of a growing global realisation that, all around the world, a fast-moving and increasingly unaccountable global economy is having effects on their local communities which they cannot control, and in many cases do not even understand.

Finally, it seems that they are increasingly prepared to react to these trends by taking matters into their own hands. From the historically large numbers who marched against the Iraq war to the massed ranks of the Countryside Alliance; from Mayday protesters to fuel protesters; from the environmental direct action movement to coalitions of farmers targeting the price-fixing of supermarkets, the growth of what might be called extra-parliamentary politics over the last decade, on both sides of the traditional political fence, has been massive and extraordinary.

The reaction of politicians to all this has been inadequate when it hasn't been absurd. Hands are wrung over voter 'apathy' when no apathy exists. The new State of the Nation poll simply shows in detail what many other such surveys have revealed over the last few years: the problem for politicians is not voter apathy but voter anger.

Political engagement in this country, as in the wider world, is high and rising - the people have simply decided that they are going to engage in new ways, because they don't think the old ones work. This is what confuses the political classes, and this is why they haven't yet worked out what to do about it. Introducing postal, email or text message voting, or inviting the inventor of Big Brother to Downing Street, is laughably beside the point. The British people are engaged, concerned and angry: the problem for our politicians is that much of the anger is directed at them.

This anger, however, is often not organised, and neither is it consistent. In some other nations it is, and when that happens - when a genuine, long-term, bottom-up grassroots movement storms onto the political stage - the result can be electrifying. The ten million farmers and rural labourers of India's National Alliance of Peoples' Movements, for instance; Brazil's Landless Workers Movement, the biggest social network in Latin America; Mexico's Zapatistas; Argentina's popular assemblies; the mass movements catalysed by Korean trade unions - each of these has changed the actions of their governments in a big way. In some cases they have changed the governments themselves. They have also, perhaps most significantly of all, changed the way that people organise themselves at local level, to achieve lasting change. When that happens to a nation's politics, nothing is ever really the same again.

Could it happen here? Charles Secrett thinks it could. Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth for ten years, is the brains behind a new organisation called ACT (Active Citizens Transform), which will be launched later this year. Working with Charter 88 and with a number of existing NGOs and citizens groups, ACT, says Secrett, is intended to be something different - not simply 'another NGO', but the catalyst of a national, grassroots movement for sustainable, long-term change.

'In some ways, this came out of unfinished business from Friends of the Earth', he explains. 'At FoE, I set up a parliamentary unit, which was dedicated to pushing for long-term change through parliament. We organised around private members bills and we showed that it could be a success. We were directly responsible for the passing into law of, for example, the Road Traffic Reduction Acts. What I wanted to do, building on that, was develop Friends of the Earth's local groups into a genuine national network that could keep up this kind of pressure, build citizen activism and large-scale mobilisation around a manifesto for sustainability. Colleagues at FoE balked at that, so I'm taking it forward now through ACT.'

Some of what Secrett is saying hints at what appears to be one of the motivating forces behind ACT - the idea that NGOs, pressure groups, charities and the like are not enough in themselves to make long-term change happen.

'We are critical of NGOs' he says, 'even though I have worked in them for most of my life. But we criticise them for particular things. Not that what they're doing is unnecessary or unimportant - just that it's not enough. The critical ingredient of transformational politics is missing - political clout. Lobbying, treading the corridors of power, using facts to prove a case - there's no incentive for politicians to respond to this kind of work, because there's no political pain for not delivering on a long-term sustainability agenda - and there's no gain from delivering on it. A lot of NGOs on the campaign side have also become almost a protest politics of constant complaint, that never sees good in anything. And it all too often sees the media as the only outlet that matters. A lot of NGOs are also dedicated to growth, which ends up translating as a focus on bureaucracy and management rather than campaigning.'

Secrett, who has spent most of his life working in NGOs, knows what he's talking about. But what's his alternative? What is ACT actually for, and what can it do that the existing plethora of groups, organisations, networks and the rest aren't already doing?

Firstly, he says, ACT can provide a long-term vision. Its full manifesto, which will be launched later this year, will fill out the details, but the foundations of what ACT stands for are already laid. Secrett says that, taken together, it adds up to a call for a 'reasonable revolution' - a phrase which will make many a Marxist choke on his cornflakes but which he is happy to stand by.
The basic ACT agenda is built around six aims: 'Reinvigorating parliament' to make government more accountable to MPs; creating a new, written constitution; strengthening local government and politics through serious devolution of power; defining a list of economic, social and ecological rights to which every citizen has a claim; strengthening and enforcing environmental protection; and reforming international bodies like the EU and the WTO so that they create, rather than undermine, sustainable development.

It's an ambitious list and, at first sight, a curiously mixed one. Is it really the sort of agenda that a social movement can be built around? And if so - crucially - how?

'What we're trying to do is pull together ideas', says Secrett. 'Not create them, because they already exist - but pull them together in powerful, poetical and political language, into an agenda that makes people go 'yeah - that's what I think, that's what I believe in.' We think that so many people are at that stage - almost. But they support organisations that haven't yet found the means to create that sort of transformation throughout society. That's what we're trying to do.'
As for the ideas themselves - they all connect, he says, and in the most radical way.

'The Earth Summit in 1992, and the first real, robust statement of what sustainability actually means in political terms - the original Agenda 21 - these documents were as revolutionary as anything that Marx and Engels, or Adam Smith, were about. Because it says on every single page - you can't have a sustainable society unless you have grassroots decision making, where public policy is decided on the ground, at local level, by communities and citizens, not just by experts and the elected and elites. This kind of democratisation of decision-making is a core part of what this new politics needs to be about. ACT is about catalysing a new social movement from the bottom up.'

The question, though, remains: how will this ambition actually be carried out? How can a social movement be 'catalysed'? Is this the best way to do it? Is it even possible?

Secrett's key partner in making it happen on the ground will be Ron Bailey, a man with many years' experience at the coalface of community activism. It was Bailey who ran Friends of the Earth's parliamentary unit under Secrett, and he has spent many years touring the country, involving communities in pushing for measures like the Road Traffic Reduction Act or - his current campaign - a proposed Local Sustainability Bill. Together with Secrett, Bailey will be responsible for taking ACT to 'the people', and selling it to them.

In ACT's first five years, the pair envisage a rolling barrage of town and village meetings, local gatherings and all the groundwork that will be needed to create a national network of involved, local campaigners working around their manifesto. Two things, says Secrett, will be crucial to make this work.

Firstly, the people involved must be genuine representatives of local communities, from across the political spectrum, not simply the usual core of environmental or social 'activists' who are already working on such issues. Secondly, if ACT is to mean anything, it must be genuinely bottom-up; not a 'linear structure' of local groups answering to a head office, but an 'organic, living, growing' social movement, of which Secrett, Bailey and their team act merely as catalysts.
'It's about energising democracy at the local level', emphasises Secrett again, 'because it's no use worrying about global structures until you've got the grassroots right.'

When ACT is formally launched in Britain, in the 18th of October, we will begin to see what the response to all this is. Perhaps ACT's most crucial initial challenge will be to convince people that this really is something different. A taste of what may be to come came recently from Tam Dalyell, the veteran MP, who was asked if he'd like to become a founder member of ACT. 'It's not that I have anything against the idea', said Dalyell, speaking to openDemocracy. 'Charles did sterling work at Friends of the Earth. I just don't see why there's a need for yet another pressure group.' Convincing such people that ACT is more than this will be the organisation's first, and maybe greatest, task. Secrett, naturally, thinks they can do it.

'Social movements come in waves', he says. 'Take the environmental movement, just as one example. The first wave was the bird charities, then the animal welfare charities, then the wild species charities, then habitat conservation. Then came the first environmental campaign groups - Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace in the 1970s. Then we got the direct action movement starting, first around Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, then among more radical groups like Earth First! in the US in the early 1980s. Then we started getting community-based direct action, then groups who would organise that.

'You can see the same sorts of evolution in any movement. We see ACT as the next wave - taking political action, real action, at local level around a long-term, agenda, and welding together an enormous coalition of existing organisations and their members. I suppose what we're looking for is the philosopher's stone of a peaceful, democratic but effective revolution made up of citizens and communities, working with organisations for real change. That's what we're trying to catalyse. And I think it can be done.'