Do Protests Work?

Epistemic status: Speculative

The three biggest protests in the UK over the last two decades – against the Iraq War, against the ban on fox hunting and to not leave the EU – were unsuccessful. So do protests work? And what do we mean by ‘work’?

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I’ve had the impression for most of my adult life that big protests don’t achieve anything. I suspect a large part of this was that during my student days, there were three massive national protests that completely failed: against the Iraq War, against university tuition fees (there were a number of these, none on the scale of the Iraq war protest, but several were quite big) and against fox hunting (the ‘Liberty and Livelihood’ March). I knew people who went on the first two of these, all were covered with much hype by the media – and nothing changed. Not even minor concessions. The Government just ignored them. All of which left me with the view, that I’ve essentially held ever since, that protests seemed a pretty ineffective way of getting change, compared to – for example – writing to your MP, donating or volunteering for specific campaigns, donating to critical crowd-funded court cases, delivering leaflets or knocking on doors for a relevant political party and so on. The failure of the more recent protests to overturn the 2016 referendum just reinforced that view.

Now, I wasn’t political at all as a student (beyond voting), so wasn’t even tempted to go on a protest, but if I thought they were more effective, I’d be more tempted to join one now, given I do many of the other activities on the list above(1). That said, you should be aware that all of this post is second-hand theorising, and it may be that much of it seems entirely obvious to protest veterans.

Obviously some protests are effective. Gandhi’s campaign of non-violent protest in India was successful at securing Indian Independence. The Civil Rights Movement in the USA was effective. Local protests to save a local sports hall or car park can be effective. Student protests to get a controversial speaker cancelled can be effective. The Black Lives Matters protests and the US protests against the Vietnam War might have been effective, though I’m not totally sure how to judge this. So maybe a better question is, “Why do the really big national protests in the UK seem to be so ineffective?”

What do we mean by failed, anyway?

If we look at this list of the largest protests in the UK(2), we can see that it’s not just my selective memory. We can see that every one of them that was calling for something specific failed, with the exception of the Poll Tax march in 1990 and, arguably, the Tamil Rights March(3).

Of those that didn’t categorically fail, the ‘UK with Ukraine’ march was in support of the government’s current position, so wasn’t asking for a change of policy. The Vietnam Protest did see the Vietnam War eventually end, but six years later – and I’m pretty sure a relatively small protest in London had no impact compared to the protests that were happening in the USA. I’m not aware that the Palestine Solidarity March or the Bristol Climate Strike secured any specific changes of policy.

To be honest, at first glance, it’s quite odd that these enormous national protests don’t seem to work. While we can get views on what people think quite easily via polling, finding out what really matters to people is a different matter (yes, you can ask about this, but anyone can say anything on a form). Compared to ticking an option on a poll, or even to firing off an email to your MP, going on a protest – giving up a whole day, travelling down to London and so on – is a major commitment, a clear indication that the people taking part care a lot about the matter(3). And things that people care that much about are often things that will influence their vote.

What do we mean by a protest ‘working’, anyway?

To be clear: if big national protests don’t work, that’s something it’s worth being aware of. Hundreds of thousands of people, each taking a day, is a lot of time. While different types of political activity are not always fungible, that’s a lot of potential person-days that could potentially be better deployed.

But what does it mean for a protest to ‘work’? Clearly, any protest will be just one part of a wider political campaign which will involve letter writing; awareness raising; activity by politicians, think-tanks, charities and lobbyists; maybe advertising and much more. How can we tell how much the protest did? All I’m really observing here is that the biggest protests were in support of political causes that failed.

So maybe the causality is the other way round. It’s not that the biggest protests weren’t effective, it’s that people only turn out in those numbers for causes which no-one seems to be listening to and where other means of political change have already failed. That seems plausible: both tuition fees and the Iraq War saw big rebellions in Parliament. And such causes are those which are going to be harder to reverse.

But still, even if that is the case, we want to know if these big protests are effective. Even if they didn’t secure change then, did they secure it later? Or affect the political landscape more broadly?

Fox hunting definitely fails those tests: today it’s a dead cause, with literal interest or support even in the Conservative party. Tuition fees also considered their inexorable rise, the government tripling them a few years later and then (under a different government) tripling them again a few more years later. The 2017 election campaign did more to halt their rise than anything else. The ‘stay in the EU’ protests have a more arguable position: it’s possible the repeated demonstration of large-scale support did something to succour and encourage the MPs who continued to block Brexit, until this was ended by Boris’s decisive election victory in 2019. But they still didn’t succeed.

The Iraq War protests have the strongest case under this hypothesis. There was a strong sense that the government had ignored the opposition to the war, which became stronger as the situation in Iraq deteriorated, and it’s plausible that the size of the protest contributed to that sense of betrayal, which slashed Blair’s majority in 2005 and contributed to Brown’s defeat in 2010. The broader backlash to Iraq has, of course, led to a clear shift against intervening in the Middle East, exemplified by Cameron’s defeat on intervening in Syria in 2013.

Raising awareness is obviously another thing that protests do. When 100,000 people or more take to the streets, it gets media coverage. Often quite a lot of media coverage. And that’s important, especially if it’s for a cause that’s not so well known, or which people wished had more attention. This seems to be the principle purpose behind climate protests(5), or the Black Lives Matter protests.

It doesn’t completely stand up in this case though. Perhaps for foxhunting, which I still find genuinely surprising gets into not just the top 20, but the top 5. But the country did almost nothing but talk about Brexit for three years, and the Iraq War was also prominently, massively, covered. Tuition fees also were not really lacking in popular awareness – every student, their parents and many others new they were in place, and it wasn’t an issue such as climate change, where one can encourage people to take individual actions to reduce it. And we’ve already said that, in terms of convincing politicians by communicating how many people care about an issue, they don’t seem to work.

Overall, the effectiveness continues to seem fairly weak, even if not zero. What if, though, the purpose of protests wasn’t to achieve change at all?

Protests as rallies

It struck me much more recently, when observing people I knew on social media talking about going on protests and marches, that actually whether or not the protest itself had an impact was beside the point. These people were excited – and came back enthused and fired up. It’s not about effecting change: it’s about building enthusiasm, and a movement. This had – perhaps stupidly – never really occurred for me, probably because to me, going on a protest would be an ordeal rather than something positive.

Obviously the longer term goal is to effect change and cause policies or laws to be enacted or reversed. But the protest itself doesn’t have to do that, in the sense of politicians looking at the size of it and changing how they’re going to vote. It’s about building engagement for future actions.

In other words, don’t consider it as a protest, but as a rally. All sorts of political movements and parties in many different countries hold rallies, but no-one thinks the rally itself is what wins elections. The people at the rally are already going to vote to you: you need to go out and get other people to vote for you, whether that’s by advertising, leafleting, convincing them, get out the vote operations or other means. The rally helps to get people excited enough to volunteer to do all these other tasks.

Rather than seeing protests as taking away time from other campaigning or political activities, it therefore makes more sense to think of it as a catalyst for them. I would love to test this in some kind of double-blind control trial, though it would probably be fairly difficult to do(6).

And in addition to this, it can build a community. It seems plausible to me that the big Remain marches were a crucial part of building that new, actively committed, pro-EU movement that began to form and start setting out a positive case for being in the EU between 2016 and 2019 (something which was in stark contrast with much of the Remain argument pre-Referendum, which had been largely negative).

There are a couple of interesting corollaries to this. Rather like the placebo effect, I suspect that you do have to believe that going on a protest might have an impact for it to really have an impact – though if you are someone who goes on protests, I wouldn’t worry that having read this blogpost will make a difference as (a) it’s highly speculative and lacking in evidence; and (b) there is, after all, always a chance.

But perhaps more interestingly, it means that if you’re someone who cares deeply about a cause but wouldn’t at all enjoy going on a big protest, you probably shouldn’t go – and should instead use the time to do something else useful for that cause. Whereas if you’re someone who’d come back all fired up from it, ready to commit even more time to the cause: well then, the protest may have been effective after all, regardless of whether or not it ‘worked’!

(1) I’m aware that I’m in a privileged position compared to many people in terms of the ways I can currently influence public policy, for example being able to speak directly to MPs or get articles in national media. But I still do quite a few of the things I’ve mentioned in the list above, too.

(2) It doesn’t specify the date, but I think post-war.

(3) The EU, of which the UK was then a part, removed Sri Lanka from a preferential trade scheme for countries with a strong human rights record a year later. By unlikely coincidence, I was the Grade 7 responsible for this policy at the time, and for representing our position within the EU. I can therefore say with confidence that this march did not play any role in the UK’s position on this – though the views of the Tamil diaspora, expressed via their constituency MPs, did to some extent.

(4) Note that this is very different from the actions of much smaller groups of protesters, such as the Just Stop Oil protests, or single, permanent, protests such as that by Steve Bray. These tell you absolutely nothing about what large numbers of people think, and function much more as awareness raising of a cause. Whether or not they work – as well as how they should be policed, the rights they should have to disrupt others and so forth – are all very different from large-scale protests.

(5) Though if anyone in the country isn’t aware of climate change, they have to have their head under a bucket. But I appreciate the purpose is, in part, to encourage individuals to take more personal actions.

(6) You can’t just look at superficially similar people who do go on protests and don’t, because whether or not they go on a protest may be a major mark of what you’re trying to measure. You’d need to look at something like people who were going to go on a protest but then didn’t due to unforeseen events such as illness, or similar.

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2 thoughts on “Do Protests Work?

  1. I really like this: it’s clearly and analytically set out, and the key insight is new to me at least, and potentially of practical use.

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