The Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign held a rally in Hyde Park this weekend. Three things stood out as major highlights for me:
1) Wow. Getting 45,000 people to take any form of coordinated political action is an extraordinary achievement, particularly in the face of austerity, deep public scepticism about politics and an increasingly fractured media market that makes it ever harder to have a genuinely national conversation about anything. This was not a mass mobilisation on the scale of Stop the War or the Countryside Alliance but hats off – the domestic charity sector would kill for a show of strength like this.
2) At one point during the day the MCs asked people to shout if they had been in Edinburgh for Make Poverty History and again if this was the first thing like this they’d ever done. About half the crowd fell into the second camp, implying that IF has done a sterling job bringing in new blood to the global justice movement. If we’re able to keep a hold of them and integrate their diffuse networks into the NGO and churches infrastructure which has long been the backbone of development campaigning we will have built something truly formidable. I spent the event in front of a lovely group in their late fifties who tutted loudly and in unison whenever one of the terrible statistics about hunger was mentioned by a speaker. That relentless quiet crossness is what gives me hope that we finally have a real shot of exercising political influence even without a government which has internationalism in its DNA: the tutters for justice are not going forget what they saw yesterday the next time a canvasser knocks on their door.
3) I’ll admit to being sceptical about whether a minute’s silence at an event with a Glastonbury vibe was going to work. I was completely and utterly wrong – it was one of the most powerful political moments I’ve ever been part of. Led by the former Archbishop of Canterbury and held in memory of the millions of people who have died of hunger in a world of plenty, the silence worked precisely because the crowd could not otherwise have been further from a stiff picture of solemnity. Likewise, with one powerful exception, the footage on display was relentlessly focused on the opportunity before us, rather than the scale of the problem itself.
So three cheers for some truly heroic efforts over many months by more than 200 of Britain’s best-loved charities. The next ten days won’t be plain sailing though, so three things to watch as the next stage of the campaign unfolds:
1) It still isn’t clear what the underlying political analysis of this campaign is. Are we trying to maximise pressure on the Prime Minister because we suspect he isn’t really that committed? Or is his personal passion to be treated in good faith but he needs our help with winning over his party and right-wing critics? Or are we not really interested in the UK at all and trying to show the other leaders that they better turn up ready to do some serious business? Or perhaps the priority is less about policy change and more about attitudinal change, using the hook of the G8 to recommence a conversation with the public about the good their aid is doing. There is an argument for each of the four (and they are not all mutually exclusive) but it isn’t clear that even the most involved member agencies would prioritise the four in the same way.
2) Nutrition specialists were rightly pleased with Saturday’s announcement of new commitments emerging from the hunger summit while tax specialists aren’t holding their breath for a breakthrough of anything like the level of ambition that we need. Which side is going to ‘own’ the overall G8 verdict for the whole coalition? The campaign has shown remarkable message discipline so far, but the risk of fracture is always highest when the decision comes about how to price a partial victory.
3) In the last few months the global justice sector has secured two massive victories (a global arms trade treaty and an end to secret deals through new European rules) against some of the most powerful vested interests in the world but change was delivered by coalitions more focussed on uniting the organisations they genuinely needed to win than on recruiting and retaining the widest possible group of NGOs. IF is the first time the UK development sector has come together in such numbers since Make Poverty History and the transaction costs remain as high as they ever were. It is unexpected pincer movements that make the biggest difference so we need to remember all time spent managing internal sector politics is time not spent doing creative outreach with high-impact unlikely suspects, like the vloggers Save the Children have been working hard to cultivate.
There will be plenty of time for post-mortems of the whole campaign later, but this weekend was overall a good reminder of the thing that brought most of us into campaigning in the first place: politicians have the power to change things and we have the power to make them. If you want to know more, there’s a good tick-tock of the day here.