I’d be cautious to claim this as a major victory, but Andrew Lansley’s appearance in the Commons yesterday to announce amendments to his NHS reforms was a pretty significant moment. It’s rare for a Cabinet member to make a statement about a bill while it’s still making its way through parliament, and Lansley’s backdown showed us a couple of interesting things.
Firstly, he was on his own up there. No other full voting member of the cabinet joined him on the front bench. This increasing isolation is telling, a visual clue that Cameron, Clegg and co are trying to disassociate themselves from a bill that’s starting to look like box office poison. Secondly, the reason for that isolation. Lansley’s hatred of the service is well known, but Cameron has staked a lot on the claim that the NHS is safe under the Tories. That position is under serious threat, which leads to the moment we saw yesterday.
How significant is it that Lansley’s climbdown was announced just after a week after the TUC march through Central London? Well, it can’t have hurt. Public disquiet over the changes is the principal reason for Lansley to be forced to take a step back and reconsider the sweeping changes that were being rushed through to law. And you don’t get more public than half a million people publicly uniting. But I think the march was not the only vector of protest to consider. The online campaigning group 38 Degrees is doing a great job at getting people writing and making their voices heard. The abandonment of plans to sell off British forest land can be directly attributed to 38 Degrees rallying people behind a single cause, and getting them to badger their MPs with their concerns. By hooking into online tools developed by They Work For You, it’s now easier than ever to get the word out to your elected representative that you’re not happy. 38 Degrees are focussing their campaigning attention on the NHS, and all of a sudden the government have twigged just how unpopular Lansley’s proposals are proving. 250,000 emails and letters in the space of a couple of weeks, combined with the TUC march have sent a very clear message.
There’s been an awful lot of noise from left-wing commentators about how direct action groups in general, and UK Uncut in particular, had hijacked the events of March 26th and diluted the message. However, with the announcement that a public enquiry has been launched into the issue of corporate tax avoidance, it would seem that message is getting through loud and clear. Six months ago, no-one was talking about the way big companies dodge tax. Now it’s a talking point and UK Uncut have played a big part in bringing that shift in agenda to the fore. Their approach is good-humoured, simple to understand and most importantly, media friendly. When they get the Daily mail on board, you know that there’s been a paradigm shift.
Modern protest is a very different animal to the beast that shambled through the eighties. It’s connected, swift and designed for maximum effect. We’re seeing a quantum shift in the way we interact with our elected representatives. Big, bold marches can be matched with peaceful direct action and letter and email-writing campaigns that ensure that our government is accountable, and that they listen when the nation thinks that they’re wrong.