Why 'Gesture Politics' is important
If I walk out of my house, go to the top of my street and look left down the next road, what do I see? Satellite dishes, a line of them, one attached to the front of each house. Fading off into the distance.
So what does that tell me?
That my neighbours are interested in watching TV, perhaps, and want a huge choice of channels. They like to stay in maybe, drink a few beers, follow the sports and enjoy some films. How do I know all this? I don't, but that's the impression I get, and impressions count for a lot.
It could be different. Here's my vision -
in place of the satellite dishes - the small, round black aerials that I see at the moment - there would be a line of mini-wind turbines instead.
What would that tell us?
Well, something different, obviously.
It might suggest that now, the same people are concerned more about the environment. Perhaps they have started thinking about their children's future, and have decided to play their part in making the world more sustainable. Each has taken the trouble to go out and buy a windmill and have it put up on the front of their house. Each one is generating a small amount of electricity, which helps cut their fuel bills and contributes to the power needs of the nation.
It would show that they care.
Ah, some people say. It's not real. It's just a 'gesture'.
Wind turbines don't make economic sense, they say. The amount of electricity they can generate is tiny, especially in urban areas. The contribution they can make to the power needs of the country is minute - very, very small. They aren't 'value for money'. They cost a lot, to buy and to install, and they would have to be running at peak efficiency for many years before they would ever pay for themselves.
That may be true. But it doesn't depress me.
On the contrary, my 'vision' of every household in the street making a positive decision to 'do something' about alternative power is a dream that cheers me up and makes me very happy.
People do have the power to 'make a difference', even if it is only a small thing. And a 'gesture'. A small thing.
Because, as everyone knows, actually, small things can add up to a lot.
Campaigners have calculated that if every household in Britain re-equipped each and every room in their home with low energy lightbulbs, then the nation could do without a whole power station. In these days of concern over pollution and carbon emissions, well, yes, that is something.
That would make a difference.
More, and even more prosaic, another suggestion is that if every house in the land was fitted with a decent level of loft insulation (and an amount of draught proofing on doors and windows), that would add up to a lot more. Maybe as much as two or three power stations.
That's impressive. A valuable saving on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.
The only problem with it, of course, is that it's not quite as exciting as 'alternative energy'. People don't seem to get so enthusiastic about layers of insulation in their attics as they do about windmills on their roofs.
Maybe it's something about the 'impression' a wind turbine can make, fluttering up there on your roof, in plain view, as opposed to insulation under the roof – which you can't see. Or, buying a windmill is somehow more definite, more of a step forward, than buying bulky rolls of insulation.
But that's not more 'real', either.
It's all about impressions. All about 'gestures'. And that can be very important.
Way back in the 1980s, campaigners calculated that if you took the amount of money it would cost to build a brand new nuclear power station – at the time, about three thousand million pounds – and spent that on loft insulation instead, then you wouldn't need the power station!
It was a choice – power station or loft insulation.
Guess which one the government chose?
Why, the choice that led to a brand new, glossy building that the politicians could be photographed opening. There's not much of a 'photo opportunity' in household lofts!
Is this important?
Yes, because, ultimately, it's all about communication.
If people put up windmills on their roofs, then maybe it wouldn't be a great economic investment, but it would be a great 'message'. It would let politicians know that ordinary people thought that 'alternative power' was a good idea, and they were prepared to back their enthusiasm with their own money.
That would give the government permission – and some incentive - to spend some of the people's taxes on windmills too, bigger and better ones, the sort that would generate real power and make a real difference.
At the moment, the opposite is true.
Those in charge, the ones with real power, can say today, 'Look, who cares about 'alternative power'? Nobody is doing anything about it. I can't see any change in my street'. See? If everybody had a windmill as I suggested, it might just change the way people saw things.
Instead, the doom sayers tell you, 'These tiny windmills don't make any difference at all. What's the point?' The point, in my view, is to get your message across. Express your point of view.
If you don’t worry about what impression you will be giving – right now and later, and what it might lead to, - then those in power are quite right to say that they don’t understand your point of view. Why? Because you haven't communicated anything!
A good example of that, for me, happened a few years ago in our area.
Unemployment was a problem, at the time, and I was a member of a group that was helping young people start their own businesses. We provided training and assisted these youngsters to draw up Business Plans, apply for grants, find premises and start their own businesses. It seemed like a great project, with a lot of good results. We were so successful, we had grants from a lot of funders, including the National Lottery.
Then, one day, the axe fell.
The Lottery funders rang up to say they were going to visit us. That seemed fine. It didn't seem like bad news. It was. They'd made a mistake, they said. They never should have given us a grant. We were the wrong type of organisation.
Hold on, we said. We're half way through a three year grant. If you withdraw your money now, we might collapse. We might have to close the service and sack staff. Sorry, they said. Really. Our mistake.
Yes, your mistake, we agreed, but it's we who suffer. And our clients. Without our help, they might not get into business. They might stay jobless, on the dole, being a drain to society.
No good. It wasn't heard. Our pleas fell on deaf ears.
The point is, when we had a Management Committee meeting, several of the members said – Well, that's it. Let's pack up now.
Hold on, I said. Shouldn't we complain? Look at what’s happened; they've changed their minds. First they said we could have the grant. Now they say we can't. Shouldn't we protest?
No point, the pessimists said. They won't change their minds. It's all over.
OK, let's be realistic. No, the Lottery Board never did change their minds. They cancelled the grant, (but luckily didn't ask for any of their earlier grant back, so we didn't have to close). I realise that.
The point, for me, was that we'd been treated badly and we should let them know. We should communicate. It won't make any difference, the other members said. Maybe not, I agreed. But we need to let them know how we feel.
Well, we didn't. We never did.
The Lottery staff went away and must have thought we were pretty happy. We hadn't complained, so why should they worry?
The only problem – not for us – is that the next time the Lottery wanted to screw around with a not-for-profit charity group, they could, couldn't they? They knew nobody would protest. They knew they would get away with it.
Even if it would do no good, I was insisting, we should let them know what it meant to us. We should communicate. We shouldn't just jump ahead to what we thought may happen – that they would ignore us. We should be prepared to go through the motions of protest, both for our sakes (in case we ever applied for another grant) and for the sake of all those other groups that were going to be messed around, now that the funders knew it was so easy.
My vision - today, now - is for bumper stickers.
I appreciate that it's very difficult to communicate with politicians in this country. Particularly the members of the Cabinet, who get taken around in chauffered limousines, and never have to talk to ordinary people.
Imagine if there were bumper stickers on every car, saying things like 'Yes to Alternative Power', 'Windmills are great' etc. Even the guys in the big cars might see them. As they were driven down Whitehall, on their way to important meetings, (if they bothered to glance out of the darkened windows of their plush vehicles), they might notice the stickers on all the cars they passed. They might just pause, and think to themselves, 'There's a lot of support out there. Maybe I should take note of it'.
It's a thought, isn't it?
No guarantees, of course, and maybe it's only a 'gesture'. But, in my book, it's something that everyone could do. We could make our feelings known, get our message across.
And that's the best hope that things will improve.