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Does direct action work?

  • by JW

“Irritating but effective.”


The VGS doesn’t ‘do’ direct action – neither, actually, does it ‘do’ campaigns or even lobbying. Rather, it tries to stimulate debate and the like.

Or, as a commentator has suggested about the VGS:

  • We report on issues in an even-handed way in order to promote debate
  • We work to promote a healthy future for the Sidmouth community
  • We actively look for ideas to make life better, and come up with new ones
  • We set up projects and collaborate with other groups on their projects
  • We act as consultants to Councils on some of their schemes
  • We carry out research on issues relevant to Sidmouth

On the other hand, it could be argued that there is place for direct action and campaigning, even if the VGS doesn’t engage in this itself.

What might come immediately to mind would be the direct action of the Suffragettes and the decades-long campaign for the UK to leave the EU – both spectacularly successful. On the other hand, the Greenham Common protests against Trident and the Countryside Alliance campaign against the fox-hunting ban were not successful.

The direct action protests of today mostly focus on issues around climate change and the wider environment.

The Fridays for Future protests were vocal and received a lot of press attention – but came to a stop due to the pandemic:

Fridays for Future: Climate Strike Exeter: 20th September: reports – Vision Group for Sidmouth

The main question is whether this increased publicity will help the cause or just alienate people:

Extinction Rebellion takes over Exeter city centre – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Extinction Rebellion takes over Plymouth city centre – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Although the bigger question is whether ‘action’ will reduce ‘anxiety’ or not:

Is there any point in environmental protest? – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Eco-anxiety – paralysis or fuel for positive change? – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Meanwhile, it’s clear that direct action does indeed get an issue into the wider public domain.

Here’s an argument for direct action from Caspar Hughes, writing in the West Country Bylines: 

Can direct action change transport – the largest source of emissions in Devon?

There is a rich history of direct action targeting transport in the UK. Transport Action Network (TAN) evolved from the activists that took direct action to help stop the road building programme in the 90s… My campaigning has been focused at the other end of the spectrum to TAN, using direct action to successfully influence local governments to fund and build protected lanes for people cycling.

Recently, I was in the unenviable position of organising two ‘die-ins’ in two cities. Maria Perez-Gonzalez and Dr Marta Krawiec were both killed whilst cycling by drivers in Exeter and London respectively. People in Exeter hadn’t organised or seen a protest like this previously, Stop Killing Cyclists has been organising them in London since 2013…

The deputy mayor of London and the chief cycling officer, under Boris Johnson when he was mayor, told transport journalists that the Stop Killing Cyclists London die-ins did two things:-
– They created conversation about safe cycling amongst the general population, and this generated the acceptance required at the grass roots level for the cycling lanes to be built.
– The mayoral team said that the die-ins lit a fire under the administration’s desire to implement the cycle lanes.

Since Boris Johnson’s term the mayorship has changed from a Conservative administration to a Labour administration, also now into its second term. Sadiq Khan has built on the work done by his predecessor and is increasing the safe cycling infrastructure in the capital significantly.

Can direct action change transport – the largest source of emissions in Devon? – West Country Bylines

Meanwhile, the Insulate Britain protests have certainly been causing controversy:

Insulate Britain motorway protests shift to the M1 in London and M4 at Heathrow | Auto Express

More than 50 Insulate Britain activists arrested already released | Daily Mail Online

Insulate Britain might be irritating but research shows that their tactics are likely to work

With a thoughtful piece here from Oscar Berglund of Bristol University writing in The Conversation:

Insulate Britain: blocking roads will alienate some people – but it’s still likely to be effective

Insulate Britain is a campaign group urging government action on greenhouse gas emissions and fuel poverty in the country’s housing stock. Their methods have recently landed them in the news, as activists blocked parts of the M25 – the motorway surrounding London – by sitting on slip roads and in the carriageway until their removal by police.

The long delays their protests caused drew outrage from motorists and much of the media that reported it. So what is the purpose of this kind of disruption, made popular in recent years by Extinction Rebellion (XR)?

The American sociologist Charles Tilly argued that all protest actions were what he called WUNC displays: shows of worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment. The goal was not to stop or make something happen directly, but to demonstrate the strength and appeal and values of the protesters, so that both those in power and the general public would listen to their message.

Direct action groups tend to be slightly different from traditional social movements: their actions typically carry higher risks, and they tend to have fewer organisational resources. While they are very committed, being “respectable” isn’t necessarily so important, and the actions are typically carried out by relatively small numbers of people. Creating disruption helps make up for these shortcomings…

What Insulate Britain want is to highlight political inertia and force the government to take action. And it is unlikely that people will be against insulating homes just because they get annoyed at protesters. An estimated four million UK households currently live in fuel poverty. Insulating homes is an essential part of lowering Britain’s emissions – and saving British households a lot of money. So, while Insulate Britain may well not be popular, their strategy appears to be to take the hit among some groups who might be irked by their methods in order to get home insulation in the news and up the government’s agenda.

Insulate Britain: blocking roads will alienate some people – but it’s still likely to be effective

Finally, if we are looking at ‘effective action’ when it comes to the environment, the Green Party itself seems to be changing direction:

Green Party’s new leadership team to focus on power not protests – BBC News

My journey from direct action to Green Party leadership candidate | Tamsin Omond

Photo: Insulate Britain protests – Wikipedia