The politics of protest: So-called ‘people power’ and the vested interests behind it

There’s a yawning gulf between rhetoric and reality when it comes to grassroots political movement

The 21st century, we are often told, is the age of the ordinary citizen. Tales of grassroots activism and internet democracy are everywhere. David Cameron has pledged to “restore real people power” through a radical redistribution of power from Westminster to “the man and woman in the street”. Nick Clegg has claimed that the Liberal Democrats are “giving power to people and communities” and Gordon Brown (remember him?) promised to “put more power where it belongs – in the people’s hands”.

British politicians on all sides have been tuning in to “the wisdom of crowds”: the Labour Party had its “Big Conversation” in 2003; in 2009 the Conservatives launched their own internet version in the form of a �1million competition to come up with a “large-scale crowd-sourcing platform”. And at the beginning of this month, the European Union launched an epetitions initiative to enable citizens to shape European law.

After the expenses crisis that engulfed British MPs in 2009, the constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor declared: “Our constitutional future is about to be rewritten, and it will be rewritten not by the politicians but by those whose servants they are.” And in the wake of the financial crash, none other than the former head of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed: “Today, as we sit among the ruins of the old order, we can think of ourselves as active participants in the process of creating a new world.”

And people power is not confined to politics either. Supermarket firms’ chief executives regularly cite consumer choice as the biggest single factor determining what they stock. Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice enable non-professionals to land lucrative record contracts. Antony Gormley placed 2,400 ordinary people on Trafalgar Square’s empty fourth plinth. Above all, the internet is regularly credited with giving everyday folks like you and me the chance to change the world. Vodafone’s slogan is “Power to you”, and its advertising agency recently produced an ad entitled “Our power” which claimed credit for the Arab Spring. According to Yahoo’s slogan, “The internet is under new management: Yours”.

But to me, these egalitarian fanfares just do not ring true. In politics, the trumpeting of people power has been accompanied by an erosion of actual power. There are consultations, complaints procedures and opportunities for “efeedback”, but none of them have teeth. Parties now blithely ignore their election pledges, like the government’s promise to end “top-down reorganisation of the NHS” followed by the biggest top-down reorganisation the NHS has ever seen. Michael Gove’s school reforms are billed as giving parents more control, but in reality it’s him that’s pulling the strings. Eric Pickles’s much-vaunted Localism Act actually centralises authority.

People power is often simply a populist ruse, like David Cameron “consulting” the public on which government spending cuts they “wanted”: a performance which the SDLP MP Mark Durkan termed “the axe factor”. Politicians are ultimately beholden not to the electorate but to the financial markets. After the announcement of massive public-sector spending cuts, an economist at the French bank BNP Paribas said: “If the austerity measures had not been delivered, the markets would have gone mad.” And as the Yahoo and Vodafone slogans illustrate, people power has been co-opted by corporations as an empty marketing tool.Citizen activism has also been co-opted by corporations in the form of “astroturf” – fake grassroots campaigns. These sneaky tactics were developed in the Nineties by tobacco firms trying to simulate widespread resistance to smoking bans. And now a whole range of companies use them, often passing as ordinary people on online messageboards to drum up support for their product. Employees of L’Or�al and Walmart have all posed as “meat puppets” or “sock puppets”. And in the US, medical insurance companies and energy firms have used astroturf campaigns to create the illusion of mass opposition to healthcare reform and climate-change legislation.

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Wielded by right-wing politicians and corporate marketing departments alike, people power is often just a fig leaf masking a concentration of power at the top. Politicians give speeches about people power as they introduce spending cuts that target the poor. Supermarkets celebrate consumer muscle as they take over our high streets and mould our buying habits.

By contrast, over the last five years I’ve had the chance to witness real people power first hand. I’ve been involved in local activism, in proper grassroots campaigns. The first campaign was against a Corporation of London proposal to build a road on Parliament Hill Fields. The second was against Camden’s plans to install the hugely expensive and unnecessary Integrated Reception System (IRS) in flats on my estate. Sky TV is behind the development of the IRS – this gives them a huge commercial advantage, and tenants and leaseholders are to foot the bill. We won the fight against the road (for now) and the outcome of the IRS fight is still in the balance.

For me these genuine local campaigns – organised by real people who hold real meetings and speak face to face with the people who make the decisions – have offered a telling comparison with the kind of fake people power I keep hearing about in the media.

But at the same time, I’ve also experienced first hand just how much the power of citizens is under attack. Councillors are open to new suggestions, but when it comes down to it, it’s difficult to influence council policy. Councils are themselves having their budgets squeezed by central government. Sky has managed to install the IRS in homes up and down the country. I do believe we can change our society for the better. But that depends on a clear-eyed assessment of populist spin and the vested interests it conceals.

Get Real: How to Tell It Like It Is in a World Of Illusions by Eliane Glaser is published by Fourth Estate, priced �14.99.