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Direct action activity

Mike McCartney

15th January 2021

The student rent strikes are a good example - blog also contains a link to a short video clip

As Alex Thomson from Channel 4 News says:

‘Thousands of students in England are joining a rent strike – saying it’s not fair for them to keep paying for university accommodation which they can’t use because of the lockdown. Some colleges have pledged to provide a rebate – but many haven’t – while there are signs the strike is spreading beyond rent because students say they’re having to pay full fees for a partial university experience.’

(Short video clip is below)

Direct action can take several forms, but at its purest it is when a group seeks to address the issue at hand directly rather than seek to influence policy makers by more traditional forms of protest such as lobbying.

An American research institute has identified a total of 198 methods of non-violent action. Wyn Grant’s typology consists of a more manageable six main forms: protest marches; boycotts; stunts; blockades, occupations and other disruption; destruction of property; violence against individuals.

Why direct action?

The story of political participation in the twentieth century is one where political parties dominated the first half, and pressure groups the second. And during the 1990s the dominant narrative was that of the sudden explosion of ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY) style protests. Of course, direct action is nothing new; one thinks here of the Diggers in the mid-seventeenth century. However, what was novel was the range and popularity of non-violent direct activity (NVDA), from the cuddly images of elderly ladies forming protest lines against live veal exports at Shoreham and Brightlingsea, to the more hard-edged actions of activists who sought to stop expansion of Manchester Airport, or when what were originally intended to be peaceful protests by Extinction Rebellion have turned violent in central London, last September.

The growth of direct action is the consequence of perceived failings by more established groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace in the environmental sphere. Their critics would argue that they have become too institutionalised in a bid to win favour with the government. NVDA therefore fills the vacuum left by groups that have altered their tactics. The shift towards DIY politics can also be viewed in terms of a search for empowerment on the behalf of protestors. In an era of globalisation, people feel increasingly marginalised and mainstream politics doesn’t satisfy their needs. Getting out and doing something helps people express their political identity in a way that letter writing doesn’t, or possibly couldn’t.

Often we see that direct action may not effect significant policy change, but it is often the preserve of groups who are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to campaign by traditional means.

And in the case of the student protestors, we have a rare example of success. Good on them, I say.

The video clip from Ch4 News is here: Rent strikes spreading across universities over accommodation lockdown – Channel 4 News

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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