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Pressure Group Activity - Focus on Direct Action

Mike McCartney

30th August 2021

It's Extinction Rebellion again

I've blogged earlier about examples of pressure group success, with regards to Black Lives Matter (see here: and the student rent protests (see here:, and also the anti-HS2 protests (see here:

These can be rated as having different levels of success.

And they are all examples of direct action. A reminder about this type of pressure group activity (words hijacked from an article I wrote many moons ago about DIY politics for the now defunct Talking Politics magazine).

What is direct action?

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.

Then there is the related question of whether the actions of these groups can be considered 'successful'. Success is, I think, a somewhat nebulous concept, and often hard to define. Does it mean an immediate and dramatic change in policy, a subtle change in policy, or simply raising public awareness. Anyway, success can depend on the following factors:

How do some pressure groups achieve success?

  • Again, it is worth having a go at defining ‘success’. This would mean the prevention of unfriendly legislation (groups campaigning against the approval of super-casinos), the passage of friendly legislation (Action on Smoking and Health and the public smoking ban). Amendments to legislation (Countryside Alliance and the anti-fox hunting legislation) and simply raising public and political awareness of an issue (environment, campaign group Liberty and human rights issues).
  • Achieving insider status (see above for methods) can promote success. Farming and environment groups in the UK and the European Union are good examples.
  • A factor in success is finance. Wealthy groups, such as those representing industries or the professions such as the British Medical Association, as well as large trade unions like UNISON, can afford to mount major campaigns, undertake research and access the media to campaign.
  • Good organisation can promote success. Organising major demonstrations is impressive and can influence both public and political opinion. Thus the Countryside Alliance put rural affairs on the political map in 2003 by putting 300,000 demonstrators on the streets of London. The use of the Internet and mobile phones mean pgs can organise demonstrations quickly and effectively – as the anti-fuel tax lobby has discovered.
  • Good use of the media is a useful tool. Jamie Oliver created a one man campaign to improve schoolchildren’s eating habits and obtain more government money for school meals. Joanna Lumley and the Ghurkha Justice Campaign is another oft quoted example. Groups representing NHS patient categories have also used the media to highlight their cause. Fathers4Justice is possibly the best example of media manipulation.
  • As shown above, the involvement of celebrities can bring success. Jamie Oliver again, Bob Geldof and Bono on world poverty, Elton John or Sir Ian McKellen on Aids and gay rights issues are examples.
  • Sometimes a group may be ideologically in tune with the party in government. Thus rights groups such as Liberty will prosper when the government has a liberal flavour. Business groups tend to be favoured by Conservatives and groups representing the poor and pensioners will generally have more influence over Labour.

Which brings us to the flurry of activity over the past two weeks by Extinction Rebellion.

I have lost count of the number of stunts pulled by XR in recent days, and this is not, therefore, an exhaustive list...

Blocking a thoroughfare in Covent Garden:

Similar activity, this time at Oxford Circus:

Glued to Science Museum in anti-Shell protest:

Though I do wonder if these types of activity are counter-productive since their actions might put people off who might be generally sympathetic to their cause?

I am thinking in particular about dousing a statue outside Buckingham Palace with red paint. See here:

I'm not saying that The Sun is the voice of the people, or it is a bastion of great journalism but it is in the business of selling papers and to an extent prints what its readers want to read. And with regards to the Palace protests, it described XR several times in its report as "shameless' eco warriors. See here:

Last, but not least, there should be some short video clips below. One from the news, one for XR itself. Both os these sourced from YouTube, where XR also has its own page, if you want to learn more about the group:

Mike McCartney

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

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