Campaigning for Change: Lessons of History. Top new book, free to download

November 10, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve blogged a couple of times on a fascinating project run by Friends of the Earth and the History and Policy network to bring historians of past campaigns and modern day campaigners together to discuss the lessons of history. The resulting 174 page book is now out and I highly recommend it.

The discussion was part of FoE’s Big Ideas Change the World project (why haven’t we got one of those?). They chose 9 big campaigns from the last 200 years of UK history (they were deliberately UK centric, to ensure both familiarity with the context among the campaigners, and a consistent context – parliamentary democracy, active civil society, strong state – to make the studies more comparable). They included some obvious candidates (abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, Chartists) and some less obvious ones (Campaign Against the Contagious Diseases Act), including some conservative/right wing campaigns (Mary Whitehouse, left). In each case historians specializing in the campaign were asked to write a short chapter covering the campaign’s focus, ‘contention’ (narrative, framing), methods and outcomes.

If you’re hoping for specific ‘lessons of history’, you’ll be disappointed – historians usually differ on the same issue and are very reluctant to draw any general conclusions. ‘We cannot use the past as a laser to point out the precise path we should follow. Rather, history is like a mirror which lets us see ourselves and understand our own time from new angles.’ More lyrically, the book ends with a quote from the Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky ‘History teaches us nothing, but only punishes [us] for not learning its lessons.’

In a final chapter, FoE’s Mike Childs tries to tease out 13 non-laser lessons, grouped under four ‘areas of learning’. Here they are:

Big game-plan and proxy campaigns

  • Look for the campaign which is the best vehicle for greater change in the future rather than deciding which campaign to run on its own merits alone. Campaigning is a multi-decadal journey. Viewing campaigning in this light may result in smarter strategies.
  • Avoid managerial campaigns with numerous detailed policy asks and instead focus on campaigns with a clear objective which contributes to a bigger game-plan of changing values, norms and social contexts.
  • Seek win-once campaigns or campaigns that are resilient to backsliding, but also be prepared for campaigning in waves, with forward momentum following by set-backs. Be prepared to use set-backs to build strength and re-invent tactics and approaches.


  • The use of moral and empathy-based approaches which reaches people emotionally and touches on values may be critical in building large and broad-based coalitions; and these will be better able to create profound change, and more powerful than rational or economic arguments alone.
  • Support from within the political or economic elite facilitates effective campaigning and/or hinders the ability of an elite driven backlash, as does broader-based support from wider society. For this the use of language is critical. It is not enough to use language which motivates only existing support; it is necessary to find language that facilitates participation by the elite and wider society as well.
  • It is necessary to be open to a plethora of campaigns and coalitions that use widely different tactics and approaches. Homogenisation is unlikely to be successful, and certainly uncomfortable for those involved. Nonetheless a shared moral position can provide common impetus and aid cooperation and trust.
  • To make the status quo untenable, and in current contexts where truly mass participation activism on the scale seen in the nineteenth century does not exist, the deployment of moral arguments coupled with the use of tactical approaches such as targeting key political constituencies may be of added importance.


  • Campaigns will benefit from greater and deeper engagement if they recognise the importance of strong individual and group identities through enabling people to strengthen and display their involvement, and build relationships with others who have done likewise.
  • People have relationships with the place they live in and the people who live there, even if this may be weakening in the age of social media. Grassroots place-based campaigning has been and will continue to be an essential element of much campaigning.
  • Direct action has contributed to successful campaigns in the past. Conditions such as it being a last resort, the involvement of respectable figures, and that it points to a deeper and widespread discontent are probably necessary for it to succeed.
  • Women have through the ages exploited and extended their sphere of influence and this has led to novel and successful tactics. For today’s campaigns looking beyond formal power relationships may also offer new approaches and tactics.


  • Prepare for and understand what backlashes may emerge and from where, and prepare how to use them for the benefit of the campaign.
  • Recognise that the powerful cannot always control the narrative. Set out to control or change the narrative through reaching deeper values through the use of vision, frames and images.

Great to see more attention to lessons from history, and done in such a thorough manner. Kudos to FoE and H&P.

November 10, 2016
Duncan Green