The rise and rise of the single issue activist have been one of the noteworthy features of the last 30 years. Whether it is gender, climate, dogs, cats, oil or housing there will be a pressure group full of activists ready to swing into action. Activists are focused on their pet project and are quite vocal about it too. And it’s not just individuals, often charities are corporate activists while receiving money from taxpayers.
Issue activism has been living through golden times – money is available, laws are passed in their favour, politicians grumble but bend when put under pressure. The rise of social media has made it easier to coordinate campaigns, villainise the opposition and pressurise decision makers. Golden times indeed
However, the consequences of this expansion are to be seen in ordinary life. Our nation’s horizons are being narrowed, priced out of reach or delayed. We see it in our planning regime, our infrastructure projects and personal freedoms; HS2 costs 10 times more than elsewhere and gets cancelled, London grinds to a halt in protests, employees lose their jobs because their views don’t fit, houses don’t get built, immigration policy becomes dysfunctional. This clogging up of the arteries of the nation is often backed by the courts with laws favouring the activists and neutering policing. It might be great for the activists, but it is not good for the country.
It is time to rebalance the equation.
Let us start by affirming protest and free opinion are a fundamental right of every citizen in a democracy. It is the means of doing this equally that needs to be reviewed. Ordinary citizens do not have the time or the inclination to spend on issues, they are too busy managing their lives consequently the system has become rigged in favour of those who do want to put the time in. There is a creeping loss of citizen power as the activists constrain personal freedom. Faced with a well-motivated, well-funded pressure group, Joe Bloggs just shrugs his shoulders and decides having a digital lynch mob descend on his Facebook account isn’t worth the hassle.
Ultimately this is a failure of our elected representatives to keep the monocultists off our backs. We have got here as MPs have not thought through the consequences of their legislation. Laws such as net zero which empower activists to stop whatever they fancy are against the national interest. Policies which contradict each other, or which endlessly add to the steps needed to get things done will eventually bring the country to a halt. A single issue can rarely stand in isolation it has to be put in context with other priorities.
So, let’s put the activists back where they should be, raising relevant issues but not aggressively abusing their position.
We need to get our MPs back to work. Somebody has to make the trade offs between competing claims and that can only be our elected representatives, who if we are honest have been ducking the hard decisions. If we need houses (and we do) then they must unblock the planning system and get affordable roofs over people’s heads. Activists can express their views, but they should not be able to bring a national priority to a dead halt. Same with energy we need dependable low cost energy and a fair mix, campaigners stopping any one type should express their views and leave the nation to decide, but not block choices.
Likewise, the way of campaigning has to change. No government money for any group with a legal case against the government. They should lobby not enrich lawyers. Campaigns which stop ordinary citizens going about their business such as getting to work or taking their kids to school should be prosecuted as the law states and not given the Nelson touch. Same for online bullying, take them offline. And while we are on laws, repeal those which are just making us all a hostage to whim, we already have enough laws it’s time to enforce the ones we have.
So, lets rebalance the way we lobby and protest, lets give more weight to the disinterested masses who don’t have the time to have bees in their bonnets, who would rather chill out with a can of lager in front of the telly than go on a demo or who want to get their parents to the doctor instead of burning up diesel in someone else’s oil protest.
Activists have an important role to play in our democracy but maybe it’s time for a rethink how they go about it.