14/12/2015 05:41 GMT | Updated 13/12/2016 05:12 GMT

Do Public Demonstrations Need to Be More Inclusive?


As I write this, thousands are gathering in Paris to urge world leaders to make a binding commitment to tackle climate change. I have to admit - I feel guilty for not being amongst them, for not doing my bit to swell the ranks and help in raising awareness of a cause that has such global significance.

Having spent a while turning this guilt over in my head - hoping that thinking about it incessantly will somehow make it better - I'm now left with more questions than answers about the role that these demonstrations play and the messages they send.

Undoubtedly there is immense social value in marches. Having the chance to get together with people from different countries, backgrounds, political parties, and campaigns creates a sense of solidarity and helps recharge the batteries of hope. For those who believe society needs to change, life can sometimes be isolating but meeting others who share your views provides the confidence you need to keep fighting the fight.

And yet, there are an awful lot of people who, for one reason or another, "miss out" on this opportunity. In my campaigning roles I've worked mainly with single parents and unpaid carers. Finding ways to make activism appealing or even possible for these time-stretched and sometimes isolated groups who often lack the confidence to speak out has, to say the least, not been easy. But these are precisely the people whose voices need to be heard and represented when people are gathering in parliament square to protest against cuts to public spending, for example. They are the ones who, along with disabled people and people with mental health problems, have borne the brunt of two decades of rising inequality and the destructive use of our planet's natural environment.

But their voices are seldom heard, only at best represented by others. Of course carers and single parents do attend marches but if my experience teaches me anything it is that they do not do so en masse. It's a sad irony that the nature of their needs often makes it extremely difficult for them to give up the time and money it takes to attend. And my experience has also shown that, in many instances, they simply wouldn't want to. The idea of shouting for someone else's rights can be scary enough - shouting for your own is often scarier still.

There is a question then about who marches are speaking for. There's also a question for me about the messages they send to people who could be beneficiaries of their efforts to bring about change. If some of those who are most in need of support find the idea of marching, waving a banner, and shouting slogans off-putting, do marches discourage from political engagement those they seek to represent? That doesn't just count for people for whom street activism is simply not their "thing". It's also those with hidden disabilities who might find the idea of joining a huge crowd in central London, or on the pavements of another major city, frankly terrifying.

This is of course not to say that activities like marches and demonstrations should not take place. They are an absolutely vital part of our freedom of speech and an essential means for showing public support for or against government policy. And they bring people together. I recently spent a (guilt-free, obviously) day at the #RefugeesWelcome rally in Westminster. What struck me most about the gathering was the carnival atmosphere. Despite the seriousness of the protesters' message, people were determined to have a good time - to show that their spirit of compassion for refugees was also one of optimism about the future world we can create.

But, I also feel as though efforts still need to be made to make the make-up and messages of marches more inclusive. Minor shock often spreads across the face of fellow activists if you tell them you are not attending a large demonstration. There needs to be more acceptance that whilst a major public meeting might be the crucial action for some, others find different and equally valid ways of having their voices heard or of supporting a cause. I think it's also important to look at the ways that people can be connected to marches from their home if they are unable to attend. Perhaps if they have the money but not the physical means or inclination to attend a march, people could pay for others to do so on their behalf or messages from people unable to attend could be carried by those who do go. There is also a need to find ways to spread the feeling of connectivity that a march can bring to those who, for whatever reason, can't be there in person.

And finally, we have to move away from the vilification of the "armchair activist". By taking any action at all they have shown that they care and that is what matters. They are contributing in their own way: it is up to us, those who are engaged on an even deeper level with these activities and are in the privileged position of being able to organise online and offline activities, that have the responsibility for ensuring those contributions make the biggest impact possible.