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Pressure group success: rail strikes as a case study

Mike McCartney

19th July 2022

The importance of good leadership (and use of media)

Before looking at the rail strikes in depth, it is worth quickly recapping on some fundamentals.

How do some pressure groups achieve success?

  • It is worth defining ‘success’. This would mean the prevention of unfriendly legislation, the passage of friendly legislation, amendments to legislation, or raising public and political awareness of an issue. In the case of the train staff, it is improving pay and conditions - i.e. a salary increase that mitigates the effects of inflation and/or limiting layoffs by the train companies.
  • Achieving insider status (see above for methods) can promote success. Farming and environment groups in the UK 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 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. Joanna Lumley and the Ghurkha Justice Campaign is an oft quoted example.
  • Related to a nu prof these points is god leadership.
  • 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 - relatively more successful when New Labour was in power than after.

Use of non violent direct action (NVDA)

In these case if the train workers, use of NVDA in the form of strikes has been a key tactic.

Direct action can, of course, take many 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.

So in summer 2022 we have witnessed (are witnessing) the biggest train strike in over 30 years.

And one of the features of the strike action has been the high profile of the leader of the RMT union, Mike Lynch.

As things stand, and this could change with more action planned over the next couple of months across the rail network, many feel that Lynch has played a blinder.

For instance, Robert Booth in the Guardian wrote:

“As commuters struggled with strike-crippled railways this week, Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT union, established himself as the central figure in a raucous public relations battle.

Shuttling between picket lines and TV studios, the previously little-known union boss garnered a cult following online for his cool performances justifying his members’ claims on pay and conditions while Conservative opponents attacked the RMT in more heated terms.

Clips of him disarming fulminating TV interviewers went viral. He informed Richard Madeley on ITV’s Good Morning Britain he was “talking twaddle” when asked if he was “into revolution and bringing down capitalism”. On Sky News, he told Kay Burley she had “gone off into the world of the surreal” when she asked if the picket would turn out like the 1980s miners’ strike – which descended into violent clashes with police.

“I’m a working-class bloke leading a trade union dispute about jobs, pay and conditions of service,” he said as he became a social media hero for many, garnering millions of clicks and celebrity endorsements from the likes of Hugh Laurie and Irvine Welsh.”

Source in full is here.

Will the unions achieve their aims, and thus be able to claim a success in their negotiations. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, see this excellent mashup of the RMT leader's TV appearances...

Mike McCartney

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

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