Ecologies of healthy UK social movements

What might a healthy UK social movement ecology look like?

To start to answer this question, I explored the environmental and LGBTQ+ UK social movement ecologies over the last 50 years, from the 1970s to the present day. My research identified the key groups of actors and organisations required for them to be a success, looking at who was most active, doing what and when. I identified patterns and suggest, as described below, what an emergent typology of the infrastructure of successful social movements might look like.

The research was conducted via literature review and interviews with relevant movement actors (see the full report for details and also summaries of both movement timelines). Thanks to all the interviewees that gave their time to speak with me, and to Save the Children UK who funded the original research – but of course the views in this blog and the research are mine, not theirs.


History and complexity

“It is tempting to see each issue in isolation, losing the connections, missing the unfolding processes, forgetting the history.

But it is only by having a handle on the links, the tendencies, the interconnections of past and present in our present history and our historic present that we can measure the gains and losses, the successes and failures, the possibilities and the intrangencies”

Jeffrey Weeks in The World we Have Won 

As I said in a previous blog: If we can understand our struggles in the context of social movements, placing ourselves in the wider tides of historic change, we can start to understand the complex systems we’re part of and see ourselves as actors within a broader movement ecology.

The snapshots I explored of these two movements showed that transformational change takes time. Legislative changes, often the campaigning benchmark for success, seem to have deep roots in radical outsider action up to a decade or two earlier, which in turn owes a debt to whole cycles of change focused work preceding it, and so on. ‘Positive’ legislative change often has unintended consequences, which along with ‘negative’ legislative change, can fuel whole new movements to continue the struggle.


An emerging typology of social movements

In the LGBTQ+ and environmental movements in the UK, I found key actors could be grouped as follows (again lots more detail is available in the full research report):

1. Rebels

This was a group that appeared again and again strongly in both movements, playing an important outsider role, bringing fresh energy and grabbing headlines with brave, surprising, creative, disruptive and sometimes illegal activities.

Some rebel activity is distinctly elitist – for example Greenpeace. But most rebel activity is unfunded, grassroots led, and open to others to join. It can respond immediately to external events in a way established organisations struggle to, and ebbs and flows over time.

The first major demonstration of the UK Gay Liberation Front in 1971

2. News media

Attracting news headlines has been very important for both struggles, whether positive or negative. Getting attention helped build public support, and controversy draws people into the debate. Attention has tended to be sustained much more by the unfolding drama of protest or controversy than by reports, figures and evidence, although this too has played a role.

NGOs such as Greenpeace have been very successful when able to force TV broadcasters to use their footage, thus keeping their framing. Such control is now possible via social media.

3. Culture, celebrity & transformative thought leadership

As well as actual news, the role of cultural storytelling and prominence of gay celebrities was very important in the transformative evolution of public opinion around LGBTQ+ issues, from the scandal surrounding the first gay kisses on tv to the coming out of prominent public figures.

This has been less true in the environmental movement, which instead has made media celebrities out of unlikely rebels, like Swampy of the road protest movement in the 1990s. Bu  the environmental movement has instead had impactful publications which have changed cultural perspectives and given birth to swathes of activism. Examples include Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ and the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’, which were game changing in moving environmentalism towards exploring systemic solutions.

4. Shallow public engagement

Getting people involved in organisations and actions at a very low level helps to build people’s interest and investment. In the environmental movement the organisations with the biggest support – like the RSPB – have been building trust and gaining ground for more than a century.

Having a broad support base means a stable income (through donations) and increasing legitimacy, as organisations like Greenpeace and Stonewall are seen as representative of their supporters. It also means supporters are kept informed about issues and progress, and can participate at a low level in making change happen.

5. Deeper public engagement

Deeper public engagement is also critical. When smaller numbers of people are able to get involved in issues they feel passionately about more deeply, this has helped really increase momentum of movements and led to snowball effects. Good examples of this are the groups of Friends of the Earth, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), Earth First!, local road protest and fracking site battles, and more recently Extinction Rebellion (XR).

Lancashire fracking protesters outside Cuadrilla’s office, protesting the local fracking plans

6. Bridge building

When groups who are not natural allies collaborate or act in solidarity with each other – loosely rather than in a formal coalition, the impacts can be big. Excellent examples of this come from site battles, on road protest and proposed fracking sites, where self-identified environmental activists have worked side by side with concerned locals, in these cases with the support of Friends of the Earth.

In the LGBTQ+ movement this has manifested differently, for example through Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) in the 1980s, and Lesbians and Gays support the Migrants in the present day. Additionally, umbrella bodies, such as the LGBT Forum, can play an important role in representing a multiplicity of voices from the grassroots.

7. Coalitions

These came up in the research specifically around battles for or against pieces of legislation, such as equal marriage, and seem to be important in getting a diversity of sectoral perspectives to advocate for and against things proposed or actually in law.

8. Policy research

Research has been important in underpinning public campaigns, informing the public about technical detail (which local environmental campaigns have then been able to use), and making cases to business and government for change.

There has been significantly more research on environmental issues, with dedicated think tanks and branches of NGOs devoted to this. In the LGBTQ+ movement there are some important research partnerships between NGOs and universities, but evidence bases for policy have been somewhat lacking. This may be because the science around environmental issues is more complex than the social policy related to LGBTQ+ issues.

9. Insider advocacy

Engaging directly with governments and parliamentarians has led to significant success, from MP Edwina Currie’s trip to the Netherlands with Stonewall, which led to the initial reduction in the age of consent for gay men, to the sustained efforts of Friends of the Earth in winning the legislation of the Climate Change Act.

Conservative MP Edwina Currie advocating for lesbian and gay equality with Stonewall

10. Supportive groups inside political parties

Both movements had groups inside the main political parties, slowly building support within them. No doubt these have played an important role in internal advocacy. The presence of the Green Party has also undoubtedly encouraged the other parties to step up their game on environmental issues, ever since it got 15% of the vote in the 1989 European elections, the year when Thatcher made an impassioned speech on climate change at the UN.


Bill Moyer and the Movement Action Plan


The Movement Action Plan is a strategic model for waging nonviolent social movements developed by Bill Moyer, a US social change activist.

Initially developed by Moyer in the late 1970s, uses case studies of successful social movements to illustrate eight distinct stages through social movements’ progress, and is designed to help movement activists choose the most effective tactics and strategies to match their movements’ current stage.

As shown in the diagram above, Moyer suggested that outsider ‘Rebel’ groups tend to kick-start the awareness of a problem in the minds of ‘Citizens’ (the public) with headline grabbing direct actions. Then as the energy for this drops away, with the rebels feeling they have failed, the baton is picked up by ‘Reformers’ (policy /lobbyist types) and ‘Change Agents’ (campaigners and organisers). Public support is won long before legislative change happens.

My findings in this paper seem to support the broad trends Moyer identified, although these play out over varying lengths of time and are cyclical rather than linear. If you’re interested in more detail, check out his book Doing Democracy.


Emerging insights

As well as the movement typology I suggest above, the research prompted some further insights from comparing the two movements. The report contains more insights and detail on what prompted them, but here are my top 5:

1. Changing public attitudes don’t always lead to legislative change

2. Intersectional struggles may seem new but they’ve been repeating for a long time

3. Although sometimes big organisations lead campaigns from the beginning, mostly issues are picked up from grassroots rebels

4. Struggles are often long, with success coming in years and decades

5. Movement success is tied to its complementarity with the prevailing global capitalist economic model

In comparing these two movements, I’ve continually asked myself why LGBTQ+ struggles have made such significant progress while so many environmental struggles are losing badly (despite many wins along the way). One stand out reason seems to be that the queer community do not threaten global economics. Companies can sponsor Pride and come out in support of trans rights far more easily than they can move to business models which stop extracting and polluting.

The transformative cultural change necessary for progress on LGBTQ+ rights has been possible within global neoliberal capitalism, but so far it seems the systemic shifts to address climate change, mass extinction, pollution and over consumption are not. In fact, in my opinion, the current economic model and power relationships sustaining and benefiting from it are causing over consumption and the climate crisis.


How can campaigners use this research?

Although most NGO campaign plans put their own organisation at the centre and assume they can have a linear impact in making a change, in reality recipes for creating social change are more like learning to dance with a complex system. If we approach campaign theory of change from a problem perspective, as Coe and Schlangen suggest in their excellent ‘No Royal Road‘ report, that means we need to try really hard to understand what is causing the problem and all the actors in the movement ecosystem.

By taking a movement ecology approach, we can see if there are niches in the movement ecology that are empty or not working well. We can better appreciate the role of alternative approaches to change, build more amicable relationships with those delivering them, and develop stronger hypotheses about what interventions might be needed. That might mean developing strategy for an organisation’s niche in a movement, collaborating with or supporting others, or even seeding interventions we think are needed by other actors.

Don’t forget, you can download the full report here. And as ever, please let me know if you find this useful, if you have questions or comments, share them below.

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