Should Remain Groups Carry Out Direct Action?

Should Remain Groups Carry Out Direct Action?

Image of Wrexham for Europe on the People's Vote March in London on 20th October 2018

Marching Failed – What is Direct Action?

Is direct action required because the People’s Vote campaign failed to get the government to listen to the many millions who support a confirmatory referendum? Over 6 million signed the Revoke Article 50 petition, but nothing happened. Twice in 2019 over a million marched in central London, but nothing changed. 

Opposition parties then walked into Johnson’s trap and agreed to a general election. As the Brexit Party stood down in Tory held seats and Labour refused to coordinate with other opposition parties. The Conservative’s only needed a 1% increase in their vote to win a substantial majority of MPs. This should not have been a surprise as Labour also had the most unpopular leader of the opposition in their history. Is it now time to step up to non-violent direct action? Extinction Rebellion have shown how effective more robust, but non-violent demonstrations can be. Yet they had just a fraction of the number of remain supporters who marched in London. However, what does the evidence suggest about the effectiveness of non-violent direct action?

What is direct action?

Peaceful direct action can be in many forms. It ranges from strikes,  boycotts of events or goods (e.g. Dyson products due to James Dyson’s support for Brexit), demonstrations, civil disobedience and other activities. According to research undertaken for the book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan show that non-violent protest is more effective at generating support, resisting crackdowns on democratic processes and defeating repressive governments than violent forms of direct action.

This may be partly due to how behaviour and ideas spread through our social networks. People automatically copy behaviour, often subconsciously, to conform or because they perceive it to be superior to existing behaviour. Similarly people share ideas and content they like and are consistent with how they want to be perceived by others. As most people do not want to be associated with violent or dangerous behaviour they are less likely to get involved or support such activities.

How can people demonstrate to achieve change?   

There is a comprehensive list of direct action on, but below are a number of forms of direct action that could encourage real change;

  • Marches where participants don’t just march and then go home can be very effective at getting media and public attention. Just look at the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations. Sit downs and other forms of non-violent protest are much more disruptive and noticeable to everyone in the vicinity of a march.   
  • Actions by workers and producers (e.g. walk outs to protest against Brexit). Interestingly pupils at 4 schools in Belfast  walked out in protest of Theresa May’s deal in 2018.    
  • Action by owners and management  (e.g. Deborah Meaden from Dragon’s Den). Few companies have come out publicly to criticise Brexit because of concerns about potential bad publicity from the media and losing government contracts.  However, this may change as the UK heads for a harder Brexit than originally promised. 
  • Refusal to pay fees (e.g. stop paying BBC licence fee).
  • Blacklisting of traders (e.g. boycott JD wetherspoons because of Tim Martin’s support for a hard Brexit).
  • Writing to MPs and local councillors. Bombarding your MPs and local councillors with letters demanding lies and law breaking are investigated properly put them under pressure to take it seriously.
  • Speeches and meetings advocating democratic change and investigations into foreign influence of elections can attract many more people to the cause and raise the standard of debate in your local area.
  • Knocking on doors and asking people to complete postcards to their MPs. Getting out on the streets of your town or city and knocking on doors can be an effective means of engaging people who are normally not politically active or willing to stop on the high street.
  • Sit-downs have previously been used in industrial disputes and civil disobedience.

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