Movement-led electoral communication: Extinction Rebellion and party policy in the media

In recent years, UK social movements have become more actively engaged in electoral political communication. In the 2015 and 2017 general election campaigns, The People’s Assembly Against Austerity adopted novel strategies to try to enter into the political debate and reach the wider electorate. During the short campaigning periods, the movement published podcasts, crowdfunded anti-Conservative billboards and brought back the protest song with the number one hit Liar Liar GE2017, as well as maintaining an active presence online and launching successful hashtag campaigns such as #ManifestoOfMisery on Twitter. The purview of each of these tactics was the electorate and the content sought to negatively evaluate the incumbent government and austerity policy in general.

In 2019, Extinction Rebellion (XR) employed similar communicative tactics (producing a billboard, releasing hashtags, a protest song, and an election special podcast) but with voters citing the environment as one of the top four issues facing the country, XR’s communicative tactics focused on prospective parliamentary candidates (PPC). One such example was the Climate hustings held by local XR groups in their constituencies, each aimed at securing support from PPCs for the movement’s Three Demands Bill that called for the next Government to “declare an emergency, commit to zero emissions by 2025 and create a Citizens’ Assembly to set out how we achieve this.”

Alongside these hustings, XR performed a series of non-violent direct actions (NVDA) directed at the political parties, the majority of which featured during their ‘12 Days of Crisis’ campaign. From 30th November until 11th December activists sounded air raid sirens across the rocks of Hay Tor at dawn, paraded a four metre ostrich with its head in the sand between political party headquarters in London, and were joined by the actor Emma Thompson outside BBC’s broadcasting house to deliver a mock weather forecast. Unusually for social movement action during elections, a number of these tactics were reported in the mainstream print media and linked, therein, with policy proposals from the main parties. The reporting of XR’s protest repertoires throughout the year could account for this increased attention.

In this short analysis, I will focus on the most broadly reported action (across the red tops, mid-market and broadsheets) dubbed ‘Bee-yond Politics’, to demonstrate links made between movement action and policy reporting. On the 5th Day of Crisis, several activists dressed in yellow-and-black bee outfits glued themselves to the Liberal Democrat battle bus. Later that week ‘the bees’ found the Labour bus and on the 10th Day the Conservative one, all with the intention of focusing the parties attention on the Bill. Across the newspapers, there was no media reporting at all of activists gluing themselves to Labour’s bus, rather the focus was on the Liberal Democrat and Conservative buses and concomitant policy. The two red tops analysed here reported on the events in markedly different ways, with The Sun codifying the activists negatively, branding them as “leftie clowns”, while The Mirror stuck with puns about bees to describe them (“a swarm” of activists “buzzed around”). Both papers report on XR’s Three Demands Bill, but only The Mirror reported the voices of the activists and alluded to specific environmental proposals (the Liberal Democrat’s 2045 emissions reduction target and the Conservative’s elusive plans). The mid-market MailOnline also described activists as bumbling” and gives the rationale behind XR’s action, but, perhaps surprisingly, foregrounded activist voices most prominently in its reporting of the Conservative battle bus. XR’s warning of Conservative party 2050 decarbonisation policy as a “death sentence” is given in the first sentence and around two thirds of the article expands on this view. This distinction in reporting is also found in two broadsheets. Both The Independent and The Guardian report extensively on the reasons for activists gluing themselves to the Liberal Democrat battle bus and link the action with the party’s policy to reduce carbon emissions, but when reporting on the Conservative battle bus mention only its delayed departure and limited police action, and make no reference to the party’s environmental commitments.

The inconsistent linking of XR action and policy in the small sample here was reflected in overall media reporting of the environment in this election. As Loughborough University analysis reveals, coverage of the environment remained low and the issue did not appear in the top five themes across the media sector, which is somewhat surprising given that data showed voters were concerned with the environment and, therefore, the potential electoral salience of this issue. But with Brexit dominating and XR’s strategy of circumventing voter-communication in favour of targeting parliamentary candidates and battle buses, the shift in this election from voter-focused anti-policy (austerity) communication to that of party political pro-policy (environment) messaging may have proven ineffectual at ensuring 2019 became the climate election.