The role of civil society in election debates this time around has been as sparse as in past years. Individual voters, yes, have told roving journalists who they intend to vote for, and even given responses to particular policy pledges, in their droves. But organised publics in civil society, with considered opinions on particular issues and different perspectives to offer, have not been consulted to the same degree.
Certainly some advocacy organisations have been called on to make comment. Taking the issue of social housing, for instance, Anne Baxendale from Shelter was interviewed by Channel 4 News for an item about the Conservative pledge to build more socially-rented houses, after the number built had plummeted since their return to power in 2010. Her bland observation that “there’s not enough social housing to go around, so seeing a political consensus from the political parties that there’s something that councils could do to provide homes that people can actually afford to live in is a really welcome step” is summarised by Political Editor, Gary Gibbon’s voiceover: “Housing charities are just pleased to see the issue on the political agenda.”
There is little more charities can say in the run up to an election, however, than offer a statement of the problem and a vague and even-handed recognition of political responses. Charity Commission rules limit what they can say once parliament has been dissolved, stipulating that they can ask candidates to sign a pledge, but can’t endorse a party’s proposals. They are even more limited with a snap election – the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) says “candidate engagement is going to be much harder, not least because a significant proportion of those who will be standing on 8 June will not have been selected yet, and a major hustings plan will be more difficult to coordinate.”1
Furthermore, like individual voters, these groups are only invited by journalists to respond to the political agenda set by the parties, rather than to contribute to setting the agenda. That’s not to say that they don’t make substantive contributions to debate at other times, but when the parties are formulating their agendas for the next parliamentary term, elite indexing becomes more pronounced and, as successive Loughborough University election studies have shown, tightly follows the issues that the parties have chosen to prioritise. There were some initiatives to broaden the agenda, such as BBC Radio 4’s Today programme asking listeners for suggestions for issues that were important to them, which they followed up with items badged as “Off The Grid” on, for example, special schools and the pension age for women, but again, these were responding on individuals’ personal concerns from their lives and interests rather than public-minded contributions from politically engaged citizens.
One method that such publics have for making their voices heard in this political opportunity structure is protest, but protest is even less likely to make the news in the run up to an election than at other times. In 2015 there was a spike in newspaper stories about protest in the immediate aftermath of the election, but on the run-up to the vote it was limited to a handful of stories about SNP members protesting aggressively at a Scottish Labour Party rally and a one-man sit-down protest at Nicola Sturgeon’s appearance on an Edinburgh street (other than references to protest votes and suchlike). Anti-austerity protests were mentioned only once, in the context of a teacher criticised for taking her pupils to an anti-austerity march in Glasgow2.
However, for this election social movements have been adopting novel approaches to try to cut through. Anti-austerity protesters in particular have been vocally opposing the Conservatives, the most active of which has been The People’s Assembly Against Austerity. Their actions have included the now inevitable social media campaigns, not only using hashtags such as #ToriesOut and #ManifestoOfMisery, both of which began trending on the day of the manifesto launch, but also hijacking the more neutral hashtag #ToryManifesto used by journalists.
More innovatively (and yet aping traditional party adverts) the People’s Assembly have also mobilised crowdfunding to raise money for billboard adverts across the UK, following a first wave targeting marginal seats funded by a single donor. The posters don’t endorse any one party, but oppose the Conservatives3, presenting Theresa May as a “threat” and addressing viewers in the second person to emphasise the impact austerity policies have on “your local hospital, your child’s education, your standard of living, your job security, your pension, your peace and security”. The posters have been reported by the Mirror4 and – more surprisingly – the Daily Mail5 as well as some local newspapers.
There is a danger that this negative campaigning could further alienate the politically disengaged, but People’s Assembly National Secretary, Sam Fairbairn sees this message as a necessary corrective – “we want to expose the lies behind Theresa May’s soundbite rhetoric,” he told the Mail – an approach shared by other small-scale culture-jamming circulating on social media, such as a poster simply saying ‘Strong and stable my arse’ that turned out to be the work of artist Jeremy Deller6. And there is an urge to address concrete issues, as Stewart Halforty, secretary of the Nottingham branch said, “We were concerned this election wasn’t about values or policies but about an individual, and we wanted to ensure policies … were being discussed”.7
The protest song is also having something of a renaissance, with another People’s Assembly campaign currently looking set to get a song called “Liar Liar”8 into the official top 40, which has so far been disparagingly reported in a Daily Express NIB and on BBC Live blogging. The song mentions “Nurses going hungry, schools in decline” and the video lists cuts to public services, but the refrain focuses on May as personally untrustworthy.
These outré tactics are necessary because conventional protest is still largely ignored. The People’s Assembly also tried to express opposition to Conservative policies outside their manifesto launch with a hastily arranged protest9 (since the party attempted to keep the location secret), but press coverage was limited to pictures (all featuring a dalek costume with May’s face) and broadcast journalists such as ITV’s Robert Peston and the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg limited their remarks to Twitter. The latter called it a “small but v vocal protest”, and mentioned it in her summary of “three things you need to know about the Conservative manifesto”10 as evidence of the political ‘tribalism’ that May had called for an end to, in favour of her notion of the political ‘mainstream’.
Of course, these protests oppose a set of policies rather than seeking to place an issue on the agenda or advocate specific policy solutions, but activists and civil society organisations have tried to do this too. Going back to the example of social housing, in the run up to the 2015 election there was a series of protests in London about the shortage of affordable and decent housing, but they were sparsely reported and primarily in the Guardian. The March for Homes (31st January 2015) was organised by council tenants and grassroots organisation Defend Council Housing, building on local campaigns such as E15 to call for rent controls, more social housing and to oppose demolitions on London estates, which was covered only by the left-leaning press, whilst Homes for Britain11 (17th March 2015) was organised by a coalition of formal civil society organisations including Crisis and the National Housing Federation, but also the Residential Landlords Association, who arguably represent part of the problem. Whilst the latter invited contributions from all parties (including Nigel Farage blaming the housing crisis on immigration) and claimed a victory in the vague promises from all to increase housebuilding, the former only attracted the support of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.
The Labour manifesto this time around reflects that grassroots agenda remarkably closely, but interestingly even the Conservative manifesto has paid lip service to allowing more council houses to be built (if not to funding them). Whilst the latter is not likely to be related to the protests, it could be a response to the popularity of Labour’s proposals, or perhaps a more general sense after the EU referendum that the grievances of those ‘left behind’ have to be addressed to ward off further populist sentiment.
The media agenda has not shifted, however. The latest grassroots housing protest, to Axe the Housing Act12 (25th May 2017) attracted no mainstream media attention, and according to the Loughborough research, housing has not yet made it into the top ten issues in election coverage. No wonder grassroots activists are targeting the music charts rather than the press with their election message.