Linda Butcher: Change is not just the province of politicians

Russell Brand was told he should stand as an MP if he wanted to make a difference, but campaigners are legitimate contributors to democracy too, writes our columnist

Linda Butcher
Linda Butcher

A radio documentary series, Can Democracy Work?, broadcast in January by BBC Radio 4, asked the question: do we need to seek election to contribute legitimately to democracy? In the series, Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, defended democracy and the importance of voting - inspired, in part, by the reaction to the comedian Russell Brand, who encouraged people not to do so.

When Brand appeared on BBC1's Question Time in December, an audience member told him that if he wanted to change things, he should stand as an MP. The comedian's response was a missed opportunity; he said he was scared of becoming "one of them", when in fact he should have defended vigorously his perfectly valid position as a campaigner.

People are often criticised for complaining but not doing anything to make things better. However, when people speak up or take action through campaigning or protest, their opponents can depict them as outsiders or not like everyone else. Take a stand on one issue and you might be seen as having a good point and being a reasonable citizen; but take a stand on too many and you become a nuisance or an activist who can lack credibility.

And yet the public, media and politicians can talk wistfully about wanting people - especially those with some kind of power, be it political, social or economic - to be seen to act for good and to show independence of mind. Are campaigners a fundamental part of democracy? Yes. Do we need to stand as politicians to be legitimate contributors to democracy? No.

A report by the Institute for Government looked at the origins of a number of policies on subjects including the minimum wage, climate change or privatisation. It found that in four out of six case studies "the originating proponent was perceived to have come from outside the government of the day, usually in the form of an interest group".

After years battling against what she called "insurmountable odds", Margaret Aspinall, the campaigner who fought for justice for the victims and survivors of the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster, received a CBE in the New Year Honours, showing that people who run long, hard-fought campaigns can finally receive recognition from the mainstream, even after years of vilification and slamming doors.

This year brings the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and there will be a public conversation about the fundamental rights that lie at the heart of our open and democratic societies. This includes the right to speak up, challenge and contribute to democracy in all kinds of ways - as campaigners, charities or as politicians.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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