It’s a surreal to see an idea dreamed up in the pub by a bunch of your mates make national news. So I discovered yesterday, when the leaders of the Save Our Schools (SOS) campaign, accompanied by the actor Steve Coogan, delivered their “message in a bottle” to Downing Street in protest at the Tories’ proposed cuts to education. Anna Cole and Alison Ali, two of the women who founded the campaign in Brighton only a few months ago, handed in thousands of messages of love for their schools written by children from across the country, including contributions from Birmingham, Manchester and the Isle of Wight.
As the parent of a child at a Brighton primary school, I have watched in admiration as a group of mums whom I bump into on the school run transformed their outrage about the planned £3bn education cuts into a nimble, creative and highly effective political campaign.
It all happened so fast: after that pub conversation last winter, they took the plunge and organised a launch in March. Within two weeks the campaign’s Facebook page had 800 likes and 10,000 reactions to its posts. In May, parents and headteachers unfurled protest banners outside 55 schools across Brighton and Hove; and the campaign held a “school assembly” gathering in local parks that brought together 1,500 children, teachers and parents.
It seems eminently possible that SOS, with its strong network of parents raising awareness at the school gates, influenced the general election result in Brighton Kemptown, where Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle ousted the Conservative Simon Kirby. Russell-Moyle said that school cuts were one of the biggest issues on the doorstep.
None of the organisers – and they are all women – in the SOS core group had done any large-scale political organising before. “Doing the campaign has made me think of the miners’ strike, when women got radicalised, and came together,” says Catherine Fisher, one of the founders. She and her fellow SOS-ers have used WhatsApp and video conferencing to organise around work and family commitments, texting and speaking after bedtimes, or getting together in the park after school.
It seems that the grim old age of austerity has a flip side: we are living through a golden era of dissent. A study by David Bailey at Birmingham University has found that not only has the number of protests risen dramatically in the years since 2008 (from 95 per year between 2000 and 2008, to an average of 154 per year between 2009 and 2016), but the kind of people involved in protests has changed. Back in the 1980s, political protest was dominated by organised labour, using tried-and-tested methods such as strikes and marches. Protest now is so much more colourful and various; Bailey describes an ecosystem of different protest groups, from workers and professionals to environmentalists and housing pressure groups. Their methods, too, have multiplied: OK, there are a lot of internet petitions, but we’ve also seen pussy hats, and Vivienne Westwood driving a tank to David Cameron’s home, and the anti-fracking group No Dash for Gas baring their bottoms outside the Department for Energy and Climate Change.
And that’s exciting, isn’t it? It’s a far cry from the desultory years under New Labour, which now seem like a cultural black hole, protest-wise. Perhaps activism didn’t feel so necessary then: society was less unequal and public services were better funded. Campaigns that did gain traction were either ignored – the impact and legacy of the government carrying on with its Iraq plans as if the largest demonstration in British history had never happened can hardly be overstated – or, in the case of the G8 and anti-capitalism protests, kettled into submission.
So I, for one, mean to enjoy this golden age to the full. As one of the SOS mums said to me, “You just reach a point at which you think: if I don’t do this, then who will?” Ironically, this may be the very spirit of the “big society” that the Tories espoused, long ago. They are learning that you should be careful what you wish for.