Thinking local, acting global

IssueDecember 2006 - January 2007
News by Ian Taylor

In what is perhaps the first academic survey of locally based anti-war groups in this country, a picture emerges of a movement which, whilst primarily concerned with international conflict, is very much rooted in local people, local politics, local activism and local media, to a possibly surprising degree.

Based on survey responses from 105 local groups and 27 follow-up interviews with activists, the municipal character of the movement shone through. Indeed this may even be one of its strengths. Emphasise the localness of your activities and the press and radio in your area are more likely to respond positively to you.

The survey was conducted between February and June 2006; the first interviews were done in June, the most recent in early November. The purpose of the survey was to sketch out the movement by gathering basic details about the initial purposes of the groups, their beliefs, activities, and the experiences they have had including when dealing the media. It was almost inevitable that it should raise more questions than it answered, and that is precisely why it proved to be such an effective springboard for the subsequent interviews.

Thinking global

Most of the groups were formed in opposition to one or other international conflict: 45% in response to war with Afghanistan following 9/11, 30% over Iraq, 10% in relation to one of any number of other previous conflicts, and just 15% to serve a more general peace, justice or environmental agenda, which of course may well be international in focus (see fig 1). Furthermore, 84% of the groups had organised either public meetings or demonstrations in relation to the conflict in Afghanistan, and 79% had done the same over the Israel/Palestine dispute.

The Make Poverty History campaign, the arms trade, and nuclear weapons were all addressed by over the half the groups surveyed, whilst globalisation was an active concern for over 40% of respondents. Thus the movement as a whole is clearly focused on international issues. The only partial exception is that 68% of groups had organised either demonstrations or public meetings out of concern for the eradication of our civil liberties through the government's “anti-terrorist” legislation and plans to bring in ID cards.

Acting local

Yet if the groups surveyed were thinking globally they were acting locally.

When asked about the main areas of activity they had been involved in as part of their opposition to the Iraq war, 90% said that leafleting the public and setting up stalls in the high street (usually on a Saturday afternoon) was one of the most important things they did. The same number said they had organised local demonstrations and fractionally fewer (89%) held public meetings on the conflict. Drumming up numbers for and organising transportation to national demonstrations was clearly important to the groups and was cited by 85% as one of their main areas of activity. But, as can be seen, it came in fourth (see fig 2).

Similarly, groups found that they got the most media coverage in their respective local newspapers (87%) and on local radio (47%), ahead of featuring on the internet (39%). Likewise local demonstrations generated more coverage for the groups in the media than any other initiatives, ahead of national protests, local meetings and sending out press releases. Most interviewees admitted they played along with what they saw as their local paper's provincialism by including a local reference in their press releases and other contacts with the media.

As one Merseyside-based activist put it, they always tried to be “savvy” when using the media, which, amongst other things, always meant having “a Liverpool hook on it. If we mention we've leafleted the local TA on Aigburth Road [in Liverpool] or something like that, they [the local media] would be more interested in that than anything else.”

Postcode lottery

For the most part, local media coverage was useful for activists so they could increase public awareness of the war and aspects of it; as well as to keep the public informed about their group and its activities. Some groups also said they tried to use the media to influence MPs or attract volunteers, but these were less common objectives. Websites and email listings were most commonly used to keep members informed of the group's activities ahead of any other possible purpose.

That however is not to say that all groups had similar experiences at the hands of the local press: 31% felt that they had enjoyed favourable coverage, whereas 9% felt very hard done by in their locals, being either ignored or maligned by them. However, 38% of respondents said that their activities were reported neither favourably nor unfavourably but somewhere in the middle by their local newspaper. On the basis of the interviews it would seem as if there is something of a postcode lottery to all this. To have any chance of success calls for media savvy and persistent hard work, but it also depends on whether the local paper is inclined to be responsive to them: some are and some aren't.

Attitudes towards lobbying MPs, which 65% of groups attempted (see fig 2), reflected a degree of ambivalence. The most common response (40%) was to say that they were in favour of this but “possibly with reservations”. When pressed further in subsequent interviews, most said they felt it was a good idea in principle but didn't expect to change their particular MP's mind on the matter. So for example, activists in York concentrated their efforts on the “fence sitting” John Grogan, who ended up voting against the war, rather than the ultra-Blairite Hugh Bayley. “There is no hope for Hugh,” one activist lamented.

Stating the obvious?

Now some people would say that of course local groups are about local activism -- that's stating the obvious. But the extent to which most are rooted in their local initiatives and reported on in terms of those initiatives is perhaps surprising. Further, the success or otherwise they have with both their media and respective MPs, are again at least partially attributable to local circumstances.

I would like to thank all those who generously gave up their time to complete the survey and speak to me in follow-up interviews. Your assistance was invaluable. An extended version of this report, addressing some of the other points in the survey, can be found online at If anyone has any further questions or comments to make about this survey my email address