What can today’s activists learn from the history of campaigning?

history_and_policy_logoFriends_of_the_Earth_(logo).svgSpent an afternoon recently discussing the lessons of UK history with an eclectic mix of historians and modern day campaigners. Organized by Friends of the Earth’s Big Ideas project and the History and Policy network, it was the second instalment in a really interesting process (see here for my post on an earlier session).

This time around, H&P had commissioned a set of short case studies on historical UK campaigns: Abolitionism; the Decriminalisation of Homosexuality; Women’s Suffrage; the campaign to repeal the 19th C Contagious Diseases Acts; the campaign against Irish Home Rule; the National Viewers and Listeners Association (aka Mary Whitehouse); the Anti-Corn Law Campaign; the Chartists and the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike. Each author was asked to discuss the campaign’s focus, methods, contestation and outcomes. The draft case studies can be found in this drop-box folder.

women's suffrageEvery participant had to agree to read at least 3 of the case studies as homework – I chose the least familiar ones to me (Anti-Contagious Diseases Act, Irish Home Rule and Chartists). Great fun. From those 3 I drew some standard lessons (importance of critical junctures like wars and political upheaval; leadership) and some new ones (at least to me). These included:

  • The extraordinary context in the 19th Century: progressive extension of voting rights, rise of new social actors like the urban, industrial working class, increasing support for women’s rights – an exhilarating backdrop and linking thread in a number of campaigns (activists often moved between them)
  • Some spectacular stunts – the Chartists at one point produced a petition that was 6 miles long, with a third of the UK population signed up. And all without social media – match that, modern-day campaigners!
  • A process of deterioration, as big tent movements focussing on a few core demands fragmented into internal factional fights over detailed policy positions (sound familiar?)

The seminar highlighted some useful lessons and challenges to modern day campaigns:

Motivation: a lot of the great campaigns were based on moral arguments – the fight for a new world, or a vision of a new way of living/being. In contrast, many modern campaigns are more ‘managerial’ – ‘don’t frighten the horses’,

Early Infographic
Early Infographic

argue for the shift of state spending resources from one place to another, rather than something more transformational. Is that partly linked to the creation of a professional campaigner caste? Or the way modern campaigns are funded? Or is it just a creation of hindsight – we remember the great transformational victories, and forget all the failures?

Religion: Linked to this emphasis on The Moral, faith groups played a huge role in many of the campaigns, often fighting proxy battles through the different campaigns (eg liberals v conservatives). In contrast, the secularism of much modern campaigning is striking.

Waves v Tides: FoE’s Craig Bennett argued that social change is like waves on a beach – they surge to and fro. The job of campaigners is not to resist the retreat of each wave, but to build the underlying tide so that each wave washes higher. Which made me wonder which comes first – to what extent is the tide (the zeitgeist) driving the waves (the campaigns) or vice versa? In practice, activists usually exaggerate the waves (i.e. their own role), and downplay the historical tides – big mistake.

Does winnability matter? Modern campaigns emphasize the A (‘achievable’) in SMART campaigning, but the Chartists never seriously believed they would get Parliament to abolish itself, and the former Newbury bypass activists in the room swore they never really thought they would stop the road. Their aim was to change the debate, trigger wider change. But it’s all too easy to claim that a flopped campaign ‘changed the terms of debate’ – how do we know if it’s true?

Linked to that, the whole nature of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in campaigns is much more complicated than it looks. Some failures sow the seeds of future success; often there is little correlation between the peaks of campaign mobilization and when the campaign actually wins. Does that mean there is still hope for Occupy?

Narratives: successful campaigns on eg gay rights or anti-smoking tried out various narratives before finding the ones that resonated with the public (respectively, love rather than respectability, and the impact of smoking in public places). Does that mean we should more consciously experiment with multiple narratives and test which ones work?

We can learn from her too......
We can learn from her too……

Coalitions and Awkward Allies (eg feminists and Social Purity advocates working together to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act) can be effective, but also have intrinsic benefits – look at how the unlikely coalition between striking miners and gay rights activists change Labour Party policy on gay rights. The best coalitions emerge organically, responding to the moment, but campaigners are also surrounded by ‘zombie coalitions’ that suck up energy while looking for a cause. Do we need to get better at killing off the zombies to make space for new alliances?

So is all history contextual or can we learn lessons, or at least see repeated patterns, within it? Best quote of the day, c/o Andrew Simms: ‘History teaches us nothing, but only punishes [us] for not learning its lessons’. Thanks to Vasily Klyuchevsky, (19th C Russian historian) for that little gem.

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One Response to “What can today’s activists learn from the history of campaigning?”
  1. Ed Maxfield

    Interesting comments, Duncan. You talk about the Zeitgeist and waves of change but most of your analysis focuses on the campaigners as actors (fair enough, given your audience) but what about the people making the changes? To what extent is the success of a campaign in delivering change affected by calculations made by decision makers about costs and benefits to them? One example from the age of elite democracy: the Liberal Party opposed Women’s Suffrage mainly because they feared that most women would vote Conservative not because of higher motivations. Another, more recent one: the Stop the War Coalition failed despite a million people marching in London because politicians calculated that they would not lose an election on the issue. And finally, the AV referendum was lost, probably in large part, because opponents were able to convince voters that the risk to their own security arising from possible political instability was a higher potential cost than the gain from doing something that was ‘fair’ to political parties. What’s my point? Well I guess it’s that you can’t leave the voters out of your calculations of what might succeed and what might not.

    Ed Maxfield
    (co-author, 101 Ways to Win an Election)

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