Three-D Issue 33: Movement-led policy action in the media: GE2019 the #ElectionRebellion

Abigail Rhodes
University of Nottingham

Throughout 2019 Extinction Rebellion (XR) made UK headlines with their protest repertoires and numerous deliberately disruptive non-violent direct actions (NVDA) with the intention of drawing attention to the climate and ecological emergency. As the general election approached, XR embarked on a series of tactics in an effort to ensure that the environment continued to be at the forefront of the political agenda. 

The movement employed similar communicative tactics to those used by The People’s Assembly in the 2017 election campaign1, such as a launching election focused hashtags (#ElectionRebellion, #ClimateElection, #TellVotersTheTruth), producing non-partisan billboards and promoting a protest song2. But with voters now citing the environment as one of the top four issues facing the country3, the majority of XR’s communicative tactics were focused on securing support from the candidates and leaders from across all parties rather than from the electorate. 

The first of these took the form of a letter4 written to the leaders of the seven main parties in the UK to request a personal meeting to discuss support for the movement’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. Dubbed the ‘Three Demands Bill’, it called for the “Government to declare an emergency, commit to zero emissions by 2025 and create a Citizens’ Assembly to set out how we achieve this.”5 To bolster the letter’s message, nine XR activists (ranging in age from 18 to 83) began hunger strikes outside UK political party headquarters in an attempt to force face-to-face meetings about the issues and demand that each party pledge to support the Bill once a new government was formed post-election. As with previous NVDAs, the strikes garnered national media attention, but reporting was limited this time around to the mid-range, centre- and left-leaning papers, including The Independent, The i, and The Guardian. 

Each of these reported on the letter, the hunger strikes and the strikers, and the rationale behind the actions, described in The Guardian as “pushing for more robust policies on tackling the climate emergency.”6 Unusually for election coverage, however, activist voices were also directly reported on. The presence of XR’s protest repertoires throughout the year could account for this increased attention, but with the strikers including an 83-year-old grandmother, the action also lent itself to the genre of human-interest stories. The human-interest angle was most prominent in the local papers, such as the Worthing Herald, which reported on a mother-of-three from the area (Mendip Crescent) who had “gone on hunger strike as part of a climate change protest. ”7 It was only The Independent, however, that substantively linked the actions with manifesto pledges, choosing to report on both the strikes and policy proposals from Labour (Green industrial revolution), Liberal Democrats and the Green Party (a national cycleway network), and the Conservatives (fossil-fuel duty cuts) in several pieces. The paper also reported on the success of the action, as meetings were held between XR and several politicians, including the Plaid Cymru leader, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Labour shadow chancellor, and one of the co-leaders of the Greens Party. 

Such meetings with movement activists may signal a move by some political parties towards engagement with social movements during elections. Of course, the electoral salience of certain issues assist with movements gaining ground in the political debate and, as noted above, polls are showing that voters are very concerned with the environment in 2019. But the role of social movements in contributing to the electoral agenda should also be acknowledged. As YouGov’s June survey revealed, the “sudden surge” in interest in the climate crisis is “undoubtedly boosted” by the “mass protests” held by Extinction Rebellion in London and activism by Greta Thunberg. 8

At the time of writing, XR were halfway through their ‘12 Days of Crisis’ action that heard air raid sirens sound across the rocks of Hay Tor at dawn, activists gluing themselves to the side of the Lib Dem battle bus, and a four metre ostrich with its head in the sand being paraded between political party headquarters in London. What the impact of these actions will be on the environmental policy of the new government remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain: XR will not stop campaigning to set the political agenda.

Endnotes

1 https://www.meccsa.org.uk/nl/three-d-issue-28-civil-society-and-grassroots-voices-in-the-election-coverage/

2 https://metro.co.uk/2019/11/11/extinction-rebellion-bid-christmas-no1-song-climate-change-11078642/

3 YouGov: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2019/11/26/political-trackers-25-26-nov-update 
IPSOS Mori: https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/966415/?utm_source=showcase&utm_campaign=visualisation/966415

4 https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Ia6KcJ5jTSTo_OPQ6BuA3PZpuQfa6I4CvLzic0xYQ5A/edit

5 Bill can be found at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1dXZif0DtyUkwUwQvj6XRQbFY_QwwoIUK/view

6 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/18/extinction-rebellion-hunger-strikers-target-uk-political-parties

7 https://www.worthingherald.co.uk/news/extinction-rebellion-worthing-mother-of-three-goes-on-hunger-strike-1-9151509

8 https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2019/06/05/concern-environment-record-highs

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