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Pressure groups: a tale of two issues

Mike McCartney

30th October 2021

How Insulate Britain and the campaign against raw sewage can be seen to have achieved differing levels of success. Or have they?

An article in the Times this week highlighted what the author saw as the contrasting levels of success of two pressure group campaigns.

A reminder of what pressure group 'success' means. Success is, I think, mostly 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? By that measure could both campaigns could be considered a success?

I have blogged here on several occasions about the Insulate Britain campaign.

See here, for example:

And thus far, is it fair to have judged their campaign as one that has failed? Yes, they have achieved a high public profile, but have their tactics backfired to such an extent that the British public have stopped listening to their cause, and so we can't really consider their actions a success? This is said to be in contrast to the success achieved by the campaign against raw sewage.

This is essentially what Emma Duncan writes in her column this week.

See here (but it is behind a paywall):

If you didn't already know, as Duncan writes, "On Tuesday the government bowed to pressure from inside and outside Parliament to include in the Environmental Bill a clause that will impose a duty on water companies to reduce the amount of raw sewage released into rivers."

So how did the campaign arrive at this legislative success? It is a good example of intra and extra parliamentary action, and of coalition building.

In today's Guardian, there is a detailed analysis of the tactics.

"Surfers against Sewage, key fighters in the battle to clean up British coasts many decades ago, had joined forces with the likes of the Rivers Trust, London Waterkeeper and British Canoeing, as the campaign group End Sewage Pollution. On the ground protests were held on beaches from Whitstable and Margate to Falmouth in Cornwall.

Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb said peers were bombarded with thousands of letters and emails calling for an end to raw sewage discharges. It was that pressure that led the Duke of Wellington to write an amendment for the environment bill which encompassed Dunne’s now defunct private member’s bill, which was passed by peers and moved to the Commons on Wednesday last week.

But in the days before the vote on the amendment, George Eustice, the environment secretary, stepped in to tell his MPs to vote against it.

On 20 October, the scene was set for a showdown. Dunne and 21 other Conservative MPs rebelled and voted for the sewage amendment, and against the whips instructions. But despite their rebellion, the amendment was not passed.

But if Eustice and his ministerial colleagues thought that was the end of it, they were soon proved wrong. The defeat of the sewage amendment prompted an outcry from unlikely but powerful allies; both left- and rightwing media, environmental activists, NGOs, the former Undertones frontman, Feargal Sharkey – whose voice was heard across the airwaves – and in even the bible of the landowning classes, Country Life.

Eventually the government gave in and U-turned. Ministers said they would be writing their own amendment next week to place a legal duty on water companies to cut sewage discharges."


So, success is hard to define. Yes, the raw sewage issue has forced a government U-turn, but we could argue that Insulate Britain have had no choice but to play the long game. Therefore it is hard to agree wholeheartedly that disruptive protests are generally counterproductive. When it comes to pressure group activity, 'success' means different things to different groups.

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