Sleepless Activism: Painting the Toon Yellow and other stories…

The benefits of what Liberal Vision describes as our “spontaneous, mad, sleep-deprived” approach to political activism… AKA: Why we made spectacles of ourselves in Newcastle and other cities across the UK

A week or two ago I would not have believed that I was one of ‘those people’ that gets up onto public monuments and shouts things. And yet, 2 days ago, following an intense couple of days with very little sleep and a lot of organising and Tweeting into the small hours, I did just that. Joined by a bunch of people who had never met before, I got up onto the platform of Grey’s Monument in Newcastle[i] and shouted about my political beliefs as loudly as I possibly could to passers-by while ripping off my skirt and jacket to reveal what I’d like to think was a compellingly hideous combination of clashing lemon, neon and custard yellow, topped off with a neon yellow tutu. People stared. Some chuckled and smiled, some looked confused, but of one thing they could be very sure: we definitely agree with Nick! As it turned out, so did a good number of passers-by. Embarrassing? Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t really; after a solid two days of tireless Tweeting and prepping it was a pretty exhilarating experience to declare to the world that I believed in a political party enough to do this, to feel that edge of possibility. We enjoyed it so much we decamped to the other end of town and did it again, finishing off with dishing out stickers and chatting to some interested onlookers about Lib Dem policies.

The thing is, I was a quiet kid at school and I’m still often told to ‘speak up’. But on Monday I yelled so loud and so passionately my stomach muscles still think I went on some kind of sadistic sit-ups marathon. So, why did I do it and how did any of us get the guts up to do it in the first place, especially when we didn’t have quite the numbers of the event in London to blend in with… Why did any of us do it? Had we all been suddenly struck down with ‘Cleggomania’, that dreadful affliction that the Daily Mail is certain will either give our houses cancer or turn swans obese (thanks, Daily Mailomatic!)? Well, possibly. If Cleggomania is understood to be a condition which re-engages (not only) young people with politics and motivates them to campaign for change, then yes, that’s probably what we have. But in our situation, I’m pretty sure that Cleggomania and its accompanying symptoms of wanting to vote positively rather than follow the incredibly depressing and well trodden path of tactical and reluctant voting or, worse, not voting at all, is actually a really good sign, and doesn’t require a cure. Even if you don’t quite ‘agree with Nick’, you’d be hard pressed to argue that the UK’s response to the Liberal Democrats over the past few weeks hasn’t saved us from what everyone thought was going to be a long, boring, depressing slog of an election month with voter apathy at maximum levels and political engagement at a minimum, especially among ‘younger voters’.  But there’s still a bit more to it than that…

Our event was one of the simultaneous Flashmobs for Fairness put on around the country by members of ‘that Facebook group’, the biggest one of which saw hundreds of people dressed in yellow descend on London’s Trafalgar Square at 3pm.  We wanted to support the Lib Dems in a creative way, to capture people’s attention and show them that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is absolutely NOT a wasted vote, and to challenge the bias against them so evident in large sections of the mainstream media. Bethany and I spotted each other whinging on one of the discussion boards and wishing there was one in the North East, when we had the realisation: there are 160, 000+ members in this group; this is possible! We set our event up, figured it would be more of a theatrical type of enterprise than a rally, got clicking, figured out how to Tweet and excitedly watched the numbers grow over the next two days. Except, it didn’t end there. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but all of a sudden I was helping to ‘admin’ Flashmob events in Derby, Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow too, exchanging tips with others who popped up over the weekend to set up another one in their town, and ringing around to drum up some publicity. It was exciting, nervewracking, stressful and uplifting all at the same time. The fact that former strangers bonded over their dedication to a cause enough to get round the logistics of planning and advertising a network of impromptu events like these is but one brilliant illustration our group provides that counters the accusations of those who like to instantly dismiss our campaign group or to denigrate them as ‘superficial’ and based on an ‘X factor’ style of understanding politics.

I cannot imagine a similar spontaneous showing of support for another political party. On the surface of things I suppose the group seems to have a ‘silly’ name: “We got RATM to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!”, which refers to the campaign by a similarly named group that succeeded in stopping the latest X factor winner ‘automatically’ getting to Christmas #1 at the end of last year. The ‘RATM’ Lib Dem group was set up by a different person, but was inspired by the power of bringing people together for a common cause over the internet, in particular the challenge this presented to a status quo. Members have been brought together by our wish to see political reform that will give us a fairer electoral system, and for the Liberal Democrats’ sensible and fair policies to be enacted. Once the first TV debate was aired, and people began to listen to Nick Clegg on an equal platform with David Cameron and Gordon Brown, the chord was struck with thousands more people.

Contrary to what the opposition and many of their supporters would have us all believe, this group does NOT take an ‘X factor’ approach to politics, with all the shallowness and superficial engagement that implies. In fact, that was rather the point behind the name. Any remaining doubters or naysayers should go to the group now. You will see a group ‘wall’ which moves rapidly as people post furiously into the small hours about media reports, questions on policies, ideas for campaign events, responses to polls and suchlike. You will also see a tab near the top for ‘Discussions’. At the time of typing, this board contains 703 threads of discussion, with most containing involved discussion and debate about policy issues, the case for parliamentary reform, the issue of bias in the media and how to combat it, threads about creative campaign ideas and so on. There are plenty of threads dedicated to reminding people of what they can do on the ground to help the campaign in their area and to identify areas in particular need of extra volunteer time, which should help to allay any fears an established activist who knows the importance of leafleting, letter drops and canvassing may have that we’re all just deluding ourselves that clicking our ‘like’ buttons will change things.

The “Rage Against the Election” has acted as a focal point for increasing numbers of people attracted by Liberal Democrat policies, many of whom had never had anything to do with the party before and has ignited the sort of interest and engagement with politics that many people will tell you has been lost in favour of superficial interests. Our coordinated efforts have motivated a massive number of people to campaign in different ways, old and new, for the future we want out of our politicians. For an independent grassroots campaign group to spring up in this way says something pretty special about the party that inspired it, and to be part of it feels pretty special too. And it looks like Nick agrees with us!

[i] This is pretty apt given Earl Grey’s commitment to political reform!

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