The need to challenge people in power….using direct action if necessary

(These are the personal thoughts of John Stewart.  They don’t necessarily reflect the views of AirportWatch Europe).  

John Stewart was the chair of the coalition which defeated plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport in London.  He has written an account of the campaign:      In 2008 was voted ‘the UK’s most effective environmentalist’.

 It is only when powerful institutions come under pressure that they will act.  Powerful institutions do not give their power away willingly.

 As airport campaigners, we should not fall into the trap of believing that simply by making good arguments, we will win.  Good arguments are important but they are not enough on their own to force the aviation industry, or governments which support it, to give their power away.

When faced with groups like us, the authorities will always do whatever suits them best to retain their power.  If they think we are weak, they will ignore us.  If they feel we are becoming a bit of a nuisance to them, they might invite us in to talk over coffee and biscuits and offer us some concessions on things which do not matter to them.  But they are not going to make concessions on the things which really do matter to them – for example, a cut in flight numbers; or a new airport; or a new runway; or big changes to flight paths – unless they are put under real pressure.

 In order to put them under pressure, we need to become powerful.  We need to threaten their power with our power.  We will never have the money or the influence or the global connections of the aviation industry but we can build up campaigns which are powerful in a different kind of way.  The success of the battle against the third runway at Heathrow Airport in London shows that campaigners can win.

There are key ways in which we can turn our campaigns into powerful movements which threaten the power of the aviation industry and its friends:

We need to get as many allies as possible.  At Heathrow, we built up the largest and most wide-ranging coalition of organizations ever assembled against airport expansion in the UK.  It included local residents, direct action activists, traditional and radical national environmental organizations, local authorities, faith groups and politicians from across the political spectrum.  However, a broad coalition in itself is not sufficient to win.  It is only the first step.

 We need to choose a strategy which challenges and confronts the powerful institutions we are fighting.  These institutions will always try to ensure that we play the game by their rules.  We must not let them do that.  We must campaign on our own terms.

We must avoid the traps which powerful institutions set.

One of the most common traps is what they call ‘public consultation’.  If they have plans for a new runway or a new airport, they will say to us, “Don’t worry.  Your voice will be heard when we consult the public.”  They will then produce glossy leaflets and stage expensive exhibitions where they will explain their plans and ask for our views on them.  But they are rarely serious about taking our views on-board about the big things that matter.  The people in power have no intention of throwing away their power just because local people said at a public consultation they object.  Public consultations are usually only used by the powerful institutions as a way of giving us the impression that we are being listened to.  They believe that if they can convince us we are being listened to it will stop us taking the radical action that will really threaten their power.

During the third runway campaign we shunned the official public consultation exhibitions.  Instead, we organized our own exhibitions on the same day as the official ones in the same expensive hotels!  Our message to those in power was that we were confident enough to challenge them directly.  Then, during the last week of the consultation, instead of just posting off our letters of response to the authorities, we held a huge protest rally in Central London.  Two days later Plane Stupid, the direct action network, staging a protest on the roof of the Houses of Parliament which received worldwide publicity.  We had subverted their public consultation process.

An even more dangerous trap powerful institutions use to make us believe our voices are being heard is ‘the public inquiry’.  We are told: “You will get your chance to make your case in front of an independent public inquiry.”  Don’t fall into the trap!  The reality is campaigners rarely win at public inquiries.  Public inquiries are simply a tool of powerful institutions to get their plans approved.  If we started winning too often at public inquires they would soon abolish them!

A third trap that is used is the legal system.  Campaigners often feel that, because their arguments are good, they will win by challenging the plans in the courts.  Again, it nearly always fails.  A legal challenge can be a useful way of gaining time to allow us to build up the more radical features of our campaign.  But don’t put your faith in the law courts!

During the third runway campaign we did win an important legal challenge.  But even our lawyers saw the challenge in the courts was only a small part of our wider campaign.  It was not the most important part.  A few weeks before our case was due to be heard in the courts, we were on the brink of dropping the challenge because we felt we had already won the campaign by other means.  Our rare victory in the courts gave other campaigners false hope that they, too, could win by mounting a legal challenge.

A fourth trap that the aviation authorities increasingly use is that of involving us in discussions about their plans.  There may be a time to talk with rather than challenge powerful institutions.  But, for this to be effective, we need to so from a position of strength.  At Heathrow, we are now talking with the owners of Heathrow, but only after we have defeated their plans for a third runway.  We are discussing matters such as flight paths, noise measurements and night flights.  They now give us a new-found respect.  They know we were part of a movement which defeated their plans for a third runway.  Part of their power has been stripped away.

And I feel certain that our victory has meant that the industry as a whole is now more inclined to listen to the more reasonable people within it.  There are many  people working within the aviation industry who don’t want to see the planet ruined or the quality of life of residents spoilt by noise.  They are potential allies.  But the industry as a whole will only listen to their voices if it feels under pressure from us.  The stronger we are, the more it will be inclined to take seriously the arguments of our allies within the industry.

Public consultations, public inquiries and legal challenges are all traps.  They are the methods powerful people and powerful institutions use to control our campaigning; to prevent us from mounting an effective challenge to their plans and their power; to ensure that we fail.  In order to succeed we need to break free from their control.  We need to set our own strategies and work out our own tactics.  We need to decide what we need to do to win.  We need to be in control of our own campaigns.

A campaign which effectively challenges the control of institutions and authorities will have a number of key elements.

1. We need to make our own confident arguments against their plans.

There are powerful economic, social, environmental and moral arguments to be made against airport expansion.  Let’s gather our facts together and make those arguments.  For example, let’s highlight the fact that aviation – one of the dirtiest and noisiest industries on the planet – pays no tax on its fuel.  Let’s not be afraid to say that the climate change impact of all the flights people in rich countries take is having on poor countries is unacceptable.  Climate change will have its biggest impact on the poorest people in poor countries; the people least likely of any on the planet to ever fly.  (Only 5% of the world’s population has ever flown).

If we start to make these sorts of arguments, we can start to change the way people, politicians and the media think about aviation.  That will put pressure on the powerful institutions which are promoting it.  We need to put them on the defensive so they react to our arguments.  This is the very opposite of us responding to exhibitions they have set up or public inquiries which they control.  We need to seize control of the agenda.

2. We need to have very visible campaigns

Powerful institutions like the aviation industry have the money to put across their arguments through advertising and their many friends in the media.  This is one of the key ways in which they influence politicians and the public.  To be successful, we must challenge powerful institutions publicly and visibly.  There are a number of ways in which we can do this.  We need to ensure we get media exposure.  An invisible campaign never wins.  We can get media exposure by publishing reports, organizing demonstrations, holding public meetings, staging creative events such a flash mobs and taking part in civil disobedience.  If we do this, it will mean we are not simply reacting in the media to announcements by the aviation industry.  We will force them to react to what we are doing.  I am not arguing that we should do things simply to get media attention.  If we do that, we are allowing the media to dictate our campaign.  But, if we do the sort of things I have described, we will get media exposure.

3. We should recognise the importance of direct action

We must always remember that powerful institutions are not going to give up their power or abandon their plans unless they are under real pressure.  Civil disobedience may well have a role to play.  Most people are not comfortable with breaking the law.  But history does show us that civil disobedience has played an important role in successful struggles in the past.  We can think of the American civil rights movement or the Suffragettes campaign for votes for women in the UK.

Our battles are unlikely to be on the same epic scale but, in order to win our campaigns, we may need to use civil disobedience.  This is the tactic that challenges and confronts the power of institutions more directly than any other.  Civil disobedience is something powerful institutions hate because they struggle to control it.  It shuns and bypasses their usual channels of communications with campaigners.

In the campaign against the third runway at Heathrow civil disobedience played an important role.  It gave publicity to the campaign.  It brought into the campaign thousands of environmental activists with energy, drive and commitment.  As part of a wider coalition, it played a critical role in defeating plans for a new runway.  Civil disobedience may not always need to be part of our campaigns but, if we rule it out at the start of our campaign, we will have thrown away an important tool to challenge powerful institutions – a failure that may prove fatal to the success of our campaign.

Conclusion:  Yes we can!

It is possible for campaigners to defeat powerful institutions.  However, we will not do so unless we are prepared to challenge them.  Even then we might not win.  But unless we build up a powerful movement which challenges their power are chances of success will be slim.


John Stewart

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