Winning campaigns in polarised times

Polarisation is deepening

The Brexit vote and more recent snap general election have shown just how deeply popular opinion is divided in the UK. In countries like the US, the election of Donald Trump has inspired a widespread resistance movement. In Spain with the recent escalation of the Catalan fight for independence, we’re seeing an aggressive response from the state through the police and through Catalan-flag-burning Spanish nationalists. As polarisation grows throughout the western world, and movements escalate, I wanted to start exploring the thinking around how to turn polarisation to the advantage of campaigners.

So I collaborated with Michaela O’Brien and the University of Westminster to invite  Training for Change founder George Lakey to give a talk in London, inspired by this blog he wrote setting out a 10 point plan to defeat Trump.

You can watch a recording of Lakey’s talk online here. Below are some reflections on the lessons and stories he shared. Jump to the bottom of this blogpost if you’d like to read a little more about George Lakey…

Viking Economics

George started out talking about his deep love for the ‘Nordic’ economic model, and told the story of how marrying a Norwegian woman and living there over half a century ago filled him with hope about the kind of egalitarian society that might be possible. It’s well known that Scandinavian countries have much lower levels of economic inequality. What is less well known is how that came about. In Norway, following the great depression in the 1930s, economic inequality soared and the country became strongly polarised, with an elite and Conservative party allied with Quisling (Norway’s ‘Hitler’) on the right and a broad workers movement on the left. Workers bought the country to a halt with a series of strikes culminating in a huge general strike which forced government negotiation. This resulted in the ‘general agreement’, a balanced path between communism and capitalism where capital would be regulated and labour rights protected.

How did this happen? George ascribed the success of this powerful movement, and others he’s been personally involved with (like the US civil rights and anti-nuclear movements) to the following:

1) A movement ecosystem

Four roles of social change

Lakey referred to US social change activist Bill Moyer‘s four roles in social change. This proposes that transformational social movements need different actors taking these four different approaches if they are to succeed, with groups, individuals and organisations pulling in the same broad direction from different angles.

  • Helpers are those meeting immediate need. Think frontline services like food banks, women’s refuges, homeless hostels and disaster relief.
  • Advocates are concerned with targeting those holding structural positions of power, like elected politicians.
  • Organisers focus on bringing more and more people together to collectively lead and take action.
  • Rebels are those that often spring to mind when we think of ‘activists’ – people locking themselves to block entrances to missile factories or greenhouse gas polluting power stations, often breaking the law.

These roles are all needed to make up a healthy movement ecosystem. Different groups, organisations and individuals may be drawn to play different roles, and these roles will come in and out of strategic importance at different times. We should appreciate the value of the roles others play and the need for balance between these to win transformational changes. Training for Change has an excellent exercise designed to foster appreciation of the different approaches.

In my mind, the UK is seriously missing the organising element in many movements – most organisations and groups are trying to mobilise people who already agree with their campaigns rather than nurture leadership of those affected through deep organising. I co-founded the Organising for Change training collective with two incredible organisers to start trying to address this. I’m also running a training on the Ecology of Social Movements in June 2018 for those interested in exploring this further.

2) The opportunity of polarisation

Obviously social polarisation has many immediate terrible consequences. The deaths in Charlottesville in the US; the hundreds of peaceful people attempting to vote injured by riot police in Catalonia. In places like the UK, where the new radical left is kicking against a Government that remains committed to austerity, we see the horrifying rise of food banks, the erosion of the welfare state, the rise in benefit claimants committing suicide in desperation and the slow privitisation of the NHS. I’m sitting in a relatively privileged position and I fully recognise that while I’m not immediately impacted by most of this, the effects on many are utterly devastating. But at the same time, polarisation fuelled by and driving further economic inequality, does bring with it opportunity. It creates volatility and tension, and with this the opportunity for great change.

3) Sustained campaigns that escalate

Protest is on the rise. As horrors like Trump’s Muslim ban unfold, huge crowds swell the streets. But as Lakey pointed out, protests alone have never won a fight. Campaigns, on the other hand – sustained campaigns that escalate at strategic points of vulnerability, can and do succeed. Protests can be one off or serial flashpoints, but these are just one tactic in the toolbox of successful campaigns.

I wrote an escalation guide for earlier this year, with case studies and suggestions from initial base building to non violent direct action, that may be a useful reference for those who want to explore the strategic escalation of campaigns. The book This is an Uprising also offers some wonderful reflection on the role of escalation –  enough for another whole blog! Essentially it argues that when escalation is done skillfully it isolates the moral position of those at the opposite end of polarisation around an issue, and builds support for the cause it champions in the court of public opinion.

4) A positive aim and proactive demands

A really key point George made again and again was that campaigns seldom win purely by reacting against something they don’t like. From his research, Lakey said, he hadn’t found a single example of a solely reactive campaign succeeding. Instead he argued progress is made when you have a positive aim and proactive demands. In the 80s, social movements in the western world were trying to hang onto gains made previously and reacting against the emergence of neoliberalism – Lakey suggests that this is why these movement were largely unsuccessful. He points to the LGBTQI movement instead and the great gains made on equal marriage, because this movement was propositional rather than simply oppositional. It put homophobes on the defence again and again. Obviously the success of this movement and failure of others emerging at the same time is the result of many more complex factors – but the point is interesting nonetheless.

Lakey pointed to the # to give a contemporary illustration of the power of articulating a positive vision. This vision is concerned with suggesting and implementing solutions rather than just highlighting the problems, calling for to an end to the incarceration culture, reparations,

Many campaigners fall into the trap of assessing what they think is ‘realistic’ as a demand, which often means defending previous gains or pushing ahead in tiny incremental ways. It’s hard to mobilise, or organise, huge numbers of people in favour of tiny improvements. But campaigns that do the opposite are showing they can win. The #Fightfor15 for example, a US campaign which has organised thousands of low paid workers in a fight far beyond a call for a living wage – to effectively double their incomes to $15 an hour. The workers themselves set this goal, supported by a union rep – it wasn’t cooked up in a campaign office by a distant policy team, and it was something workers could see would make a genuine difference to their lives. The campaign has seen many local victories in states and cities across the US and has forced Walmart and Macdonalds to increase their wages. It’s even spread here to the UK, inspiring McDonalds workers to strike for the first time. This campaign case study is explored in detail in the excellent new Changemakers podcast.

5) Demands that unite

When asked how to get support for unpopular causes, Lakey suggested that campaigners look for demands that unite people by benefiting everyone. The #Fightfor15 is a good example – an increase in wages for all people on low incomes is also of great benefit to many people of colour, building an intersectional alliance with #BlackLivesMatter. Lakey himself is currently campaigning against climate change and for economic justice by running a campaign for investment in solar which would bring much needed jobs to a low income area. This has gained support from local communities of colour – the demands were developed in partnership with them, and it sounds like the campaign is making some exciting progress. Of course, it is easier said than done to create a demand that unites people by offering broad benefits – but is is also obvious that where campaigns can do this, there is huge potential for success.

6) A shared vision and a movement of movements

When change starts to happen, visible campaigns making progress inspire other campaigns to get going. Before long, simultaneous issue or demographic-specific movements emerge, often not working together. Lakey called for movements to align through development of a shared vision. The power of movements pulling together is obviously huge – if we’re able to do this, transformational social change for a more equitable and sustainable world is certainly possible.

How can this be done?
Bridges Not Walls was an interesting example of how movements could unite around a common vision for Trump’s inauguration, but it wasn’t set up to build on this one moment for sustained collaboration. I’m getting increasingly interested in building bridges between the disparate movements in the UK, connected to those across Europe, to find a common language and vision for the world we want. Would a series of regional and national convergences across the UK be a good starting point for this? How could we fund it? If you have any suggestions or you’re interested in getting involved, please get in touch.

Want to know a bit more about George Lakey?

Lakey recently retired from Swarthmore College where he was Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Issues in Social Change. He created and managed the Global Nonviolent Action Database research project (

Lakey has led social change organizations on local, state, national, and international levels. He has received the Martin Luther King, Jr., Peace Award, the Paul Robeson Social Justice Award, the Ashley Montague Conflict Resolution Award from the International Conflict Resolution Association, and the Giraffe Award for “Sticking his Neck out for the Common Good.”

Lakey is also a respected author on the topic of social change. Author Rebecca Solnit described his newest publication Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too  as “an adventure and a field manual for our moment”.

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