How public opposition has forced Tory government U-turns
by Ian Sinclair
8 July 2020
While there are always some people who are quick to dismiss grassroots activism as ineffective, the last couple of months has provided inspiring case studies showing how protest can have a huge impact on the government and the wider political landscape.
For instance, the coronavirus crisis may have trapped most of us at home during lockdown, but public pressure has forced the government’s hand on several important issues.
In April a “cabinet source” spoke to the Telegraph about the government’s exit strategy from the lockdown. ‘It [the government] is waiting for the public to change their mind’, they noted. ‘We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place — public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.’
The government has also been pushed into making two embarrassing U-turns. As the Guardian recently explained: “The phased opening of schools in England began at the beginning of June, but the government shelved plans to get every primary school child back in class for at least a month before the summer holiday, in the face of the opposition from unions and some scientists.”
Even more spectacular was the government’s retreat on free school meals vouchers, which it had said would stop outside of term time, affecting about 1.3 million children in England.
In response the 22-year old Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford wrote an open letter to the government explaining the importance of the scheme to children, highlighting his family’s reliance on the scheme when he was younger. Downing Street rejected his protest, with ministers sent out to defend the government’s position. However, with extensive media coverage and growing support the government reversed its position within 24-hours and confirmed free school meals vouchers would continue during school holidays.
And even when public opposition doesn’t win a clear victory over government – which is most of the time – it can still have important results. So the furore over Dominic Cummings breaking lockdown didn’t end with the Prime Minister’s closest adviser being sacked but it likely massively wounded him. As a “source” told the Telegraph last month: “People just aren’t scared of him any more. Everyone knows he is one wrong move from being out of a job.”
Sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on 25 May and subsequent demonstrations in the US, the Black Lives Matters protests in the UK have been hugely impactful too.
According to government figures, approximately 137,000 people attended more than 200 protests in the UK over the weekend of 6-7 June. After protesters toppled the statue of slaver Edward Colston on 7 June, Tower Hamlets council quickly removed the statue of slave trader Robert Milligan and Oriel College at Oxford University agreed to take down the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The University of Liverpool has also agreed to rename a building named after former prime minister William Gladstone because of his links to the slave trade.
In addition, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced he would set up a commission to review London’s landmarks to ensure they reflect the capital’s diversity. A day later the Guardian reported “all Labour councils in England and Wales said they would examine statues and monuments.”
More broadly, the protests have triggered a national conversation on British racism and colonialism, with renewed demands for Black history to be made a mandatory part of the national curriculum. And while there is already a slavery museum in Liverpool, there are growing calls for a national museum of slavery.
While coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter agitation have received extensive media coverage, another hugely important example of the power of protest seems was barely noticed by the mainstream media.
“For now, fracking is over”, Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC’s North West Tonight programme on 18 June. “We had a moratorium on fracking last year and frankly the debate’s moved on. It is not something that we’re looking to do.”
As well as accurately describing Kwarteng’s statement as “a victory for the planet and our future existence on it”, Green Party peer Jenny Jones was correct when she told the Independent: “The end of fracking in the UK is a victory for all the campaigners who faced arrest in order to stop another climate chaos technology from taking root.”
Then Prime Minister David Cameron had announced the government was “going all out” for fracking in January 2014. He rejected calls for a moratorium on fracking a year later. However, with just a single well fracked in the UK since 2011, in 2018 the Guardian reported “Cameron has told US oil executives of his frustration that the UK has failed to embrace fracking despite his best efforts, and hit out at green groups for being ‘absolutely obsessed’ with blocking new fossil fuel extraction.”
A number of hopeful lessons can be taken from these successful struggles.
First, although the Tory Party won a majority of eighty seats in the December general election, the government is susceptible to public pressure at the moment.
Second, extra-parliamentary action is as important – arguably more important – than what happens in parliament. This is crucial to understand when the Labour Party is shifting away from the social movements and unions that backed Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and trying to project itself as a more professional and very much parliamentary-focussed alternative to the Tories. But this shift to the right doesn’t alter how change is made. As British author Gary Younge wrote in December: “progressive change is enacted through parliament, but it rarely begins there.”
Third, it is important not to be complacent. Yes, public pressure and direct action have changed government policy for the better, but this has only happened because of the hard work of campaigners over weeks, months, years, even decades. Citing the sociologist Charles Tilly, the historian Keith Flett had some wise words in a letter published in the Guardian last year: “Effective protest that leads to real change is a difficult thing to achieve and historically has required… an entire repertoire of contention”. To win more victories, and bigger and more important victories such as overturning the government’s inadequate response to the climate crisis, will require a huge and sustained surge in grassroots activism and organisation.
One of my favourite quotes – from former slave Frederick Douglass – is famous for a reason: because it is true. “Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters”, he said in 1857. “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.