Activism is not an unpopularity contest

IssueDecember 2022 - January 2023
Feature by Gabriel Carlyle

‘The trouble with you people is that you target ordinary people’s lives!’

The man with the white beard was angry. It was 3.50pm and he’d just showed up to his local branch of Barclays bank, only find it closed ‘due to unforeseen circumstances’.

‘Unforeseen circumstances! That’s you, isn’t it?’ he raged.

Barclays is Europe’s largest financier of fossil fuels, having provided over $166bn to the oil, coal and gas industries since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. So, as part of a national day of action, my friends had staged a peaceful sit-in disrupting the bank earlier that afternoon.

We tried to explain the lengths the activists had gone to not to interfere with the everyday running of the branch.

We pointed out that it was the decision of the Barclays staff to close the branch early (presumably out of embarrassment) after an hour of operating without problems alongside the sit-in.

All our explanations were futile. The man with the white beard stormed off, shouting abuse.

Soup and Sunflowers

A spate of recent actions involving famous artworks – most prominently the throwing of tomato soup over the glass protecting Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery – have led to a flurry of commentary about if and when such protests are effective.

In particular: do actions that are perceived either as ‘extreme’ (such as the soup-throwing) or as targeting the general public (such as Just Stop Oil’s sit-downs on the M25) help or hinder a cause?

At its more thoughtful end, this coverage has included discussion of what social science research has to say about such topics as ‘the activist’s dilemma’ (the idea that ‘extreme’ protests can repel potential supporters even as they grab public attention, while less ‘extreme’ protests are simply ignored) and ‘radical flank effects’ (in which the existence of a more ‘extreme’ faction of a social movement leads to an increase or decrease in support for more ‘moderate’ parts of the same movement).

Here are some brief thoughts spurred by this coverage.

It’s probably better if it makes sense

All other things being equal, it’s better if an action makes sense to others (as well as to you) and is part of a coherent strategy.

Some forms of protest have a clear action logic: the form of the action is clearly and directly related to what the action is about. Two examples could be: smashing up a warplane bound for use in genocide abroad; or sitting-in at a segregated lunch counter.

On the other hand, throwing soup at a painting or glueing your hand to the road to block the M25 have no clear relationship with new North Sea oil licences.

“Some 63 percent of the US population had an unfavourable opinion of Martin Luther King Jr”

That doesn’t make the first two actions right and the second two wrong, but it should give you pause if your actions routinely don’t speak for themselves.

To my mind, Plane Stupid is a great recent example of a campaign that used action logic to great effect. Their occupations of taxiways and departure lounges at airports helped push the issue of airport expansion up the media agenda for years, helping to kick Heathrow’s third runway into the long grass.

When Dan Glass, a member of Plane Stupid, glued his hand to the then prime minister in 2008, he was taking his protest to the top decision-maker in the country on airport expansion. (He was receiving an award from Gordon Brown for Plane Stupid’s campaigning. The group said it was trying to make the PM ‘stick to his environmental promises’.)

Activism is not a popularity contest

You often hear it claimed that because a particular tactic alienates some people it must be wrong (‘you’ll lose support’). Not so.

The point of activism is usually to win a particular goal (union recognition, the repeal of an unjust law, to derail British participation in a war...), rather than to be celebrated in opinion polls.

That doesn’t mean that we can simply ignore public opinion, but public approval is certainly not the be-all-and-end-all of campaigning.

As many commentators have noted, though he is now widely regarded as a secular saint, towards the end of his life some 63 percent of the US population had an unfavourable opinion of Martin Luther King Jr.

Active supporters are key

By itself, having public support – even overwhelming public support, measured in opinion polls – doesn’t guarantee that you will win.

If it did, then the railways would already have been renationalised and a mass insulation programme rolled out across the country – both command strong majorities of the public, across the political spectrum. (For example, a majority of Conservative voters have supported rail renationalisation since August 2020, according to YouGov.)

It is actually activated social values – the numbers of people who are actively pushing for a particular change – that make the difference.

As Daniel Hunter writes in the Climate Resistance Handbook: ‘People can believe something. But if they don’t act on it, politicians won’t care.’

When it comes to climate change, there is huge passive support in the UK for climate action. A crucial question, then, is whether our actions and campaigns draw more and more people out of passive support into active support for effective climate action.

If they do, then alienating some people who are either neutral or already hostile may be a price worth paying.

We should stop talking about ‘radical protests’

A protest or campaign can have a radical goal (ending slavery, winning the vote for women, rapidly phasing out fossil fuels) but there’s no such thing as a radical form of protest (whether we’re thinking of civil disobedience, property damage or anything else).

Your goals may be radical. But if your tactics aren’t helping you to win those goals (or worse, are making it more likely that you will lose) then there’s nothing radical about them.

In some contexts, blocking a road is a great tactic. In others, going door-to-door with a petition – or singing subvertised Christmas carols, dressed as elves – might be more effective.


In chess, you are unlikely to win by making an immediate direct assault on your opponent’s king. You may have to set yourself medium-term goals such as neutralising one of your opponent’s pieces or getting one of your own pieces into a position where it can be useful.

If your actions are always focused on ‘raising the alarm’ among the general public (who may already be quite alarmed, but not yet convinced that there’s a constructive way for them to channel this alarm), or making huge demands on national government, then you might want to go back to the strategic drawing board.

What might seem like the quickest and most direct route (getting your demands repeatedly reported in the national media, leading the government to give in) might be a non-starter.

There might be an alternative approach (such as getting the hundreds of local councils that have already passed ‘climate emergency’ resolutions to actively back your demands) that might stand a better chance of achieving something positive.

The history of activism is full of examples where an ‘indirect’ strategy was actually more powerful than a head-on all-or-nothing confrontation.

Activism isn’t a science

The social science research on social movements is interesting but should probably be taken with a pinch of salt.

For example, one recent survey of relevant research concluded that ‘a movement with a nonviolent radical flank is likely to be more successful than a movement with no nonviolent radical flank’.

On the other hand, the same article also noted that: ‘Evidence surrounding the radical flank effect is both sparse and mixed, meaning that we are fairly uncertain about when movements are likely to experience a positive radical flank effect as opposed to a negative radical flank effect.’

There’s a bigger problem, the authors accepted: ‘it is unclear whether exposure to media articles in a controlled setting’ – a key feature of some of the social science experiments considered – ‘is a sufficiently close proxy to public exposure to protest in the real world’.


Anyone who tells you that generating X number of arrests, or getting Y number of people locked-up, guarantees the achievement of goal Z is, of course, talking nonsense.

Topics: Activism