Matthew Bolton is the Deputy Director of Citizens UK and Lead Organiser for London Citizens, two organizations which have successfully campaigned for political change by building up movements of ordinary people. In his new book How to Resist: Turn Protest to Power, he shares his methods and firsthand experiences in order to inspire and empower others to get politically involved and create real change. Verge is excited to have the opportunity to interview Matthew on his career and new book.
Why did you first get involved in activism?
When I was a teenager. I grew up in south east London and I went to a state school, then got a scholarship to private school and then back to state school. I experienced both sides. I got mugged at knife point and violently car-jacked, I had friends who were dodging gangs in the stairwell of their block, trying to do their homework in an overcrowded flat when mum was out working nights and the gas meter ran out. But I also played cricket on big green fields and had friends who got private tutors, got bought a car when they were 17 and had a red carpet all the way to a top university via some work experience in an investment bank. Then they tell you that it’s all fair and the system is a meritocracy and it’s about how clever you are and how hard you work. Bullshit.
Could you tell us a bit about your experiences as a social activist?
I’m an organiser with Citizens UK and my role is to equip people with the tools to make change happen. We build people power through schools, universities, faith groups and unions and then run national campaigns like the Living Wage, which has won hundreds of millions of pounds for low-paid people, and loads of local campaigns. One example led by university students was the Save Me campaign at Queen Mary University. Prompted by the death of a student who was hit by a car, we trained a team of student leaders to build a campaign to demand a safer road crossing. Everyone was angry and we channeled that into action. With a whole load of placards, students blocked the road and demanded change. The campaign got news coverage, we managed to negotiate with the Council for improved road crossings and those students knew that they had the power to make change.
What inspired you to write How to Resist?
Two things. First, I’m angry about the way the world’s going. I want change and I know that we need a whole generation of active citizens to make that happen. Second, I see that there’s a real moment of potential now. People are angry and they’re hopeful, and so beyond the vote and the one-off protest, how can that be channeled into effective and ongoing activism.
Who do you most want the book to reach?
People who are getting politically engaged, maybe they’ve voted for the first time or they’ve been on a big march and they want more. The last thing I want is for people to feel that campaigning doesn’t work or that politics is something that only politicians can do. I want the book to be used by people to make the change they want to see, whether that’s local in their university or big national change.
A lot of the methods for enacting social change that you discuss in the book go beyond the typical things people might think to do, such as volunteering at food banks or going to marches. Was there a lot of trial and error in developing these methods?
Volunteering at food banks is a good start. But we can’t stop there. People deserve more than charity, they deserve justice. So, if you volunteer at a foodbank then it’s time to start agitating the people who run it to listen to why people are coming and start a campaign – whether that’s against zero hours contracts or against punitive benefits sanctions. Every campaign is going to involve trying things out, seeing if they work. But this method has a 70 year history and it’s tried and tested so yes, there’s some trial and error, but if you use these tactics and this approach then it makes winning a whole lot more likely.
You also reference historical movements, such as the Montgomery bus boycott. What is the importance of looking at history when trying to enact social change today?
History is an inspiration. People fought for all the things we take for granted today. For the vote, for gay rights and women’s rights, against slavery, for safety at work, the list goes on. And they used these same tactics, organising people together, coming up with their demands, challenging and embarrassing those in power and pushing for change. But the really moving thing is that if you read the stories and you find the characters you realise that they weren’t superhuman, they were scared and they got things wrong. They were people just like you and me.
If you had to pick one main idea you want people to take from the book, what would it be?
It would be power. That’s the fundamental. It’s not enough just to really care about something or to be sure you’re right. No argument posted on social media, however clever, is going to change things. Power is what we need and that’s liberating because anyone and everyone can build people power, by talking to people about what you care about and why, and by listening to them. People don’t realise the power they have, or could have once they start working at it.
How to Resist is available from Bloomsbury Publishing .www.bloomsbury.com/uk/how-to-resist-9781408892732/