2020: The year in UK activism

2020: The year in UK activism

People power — We recall month by month what has been a tumultuous year in the fight for social justice.

Following the devastating general election defeat last December, many of us ended last year feeling broken and distraught. And, for many, it only got worse. We don’t need to re-run the continuing horrors of this year, but it’s important to recognise that, in amongst all of it, we’ve kept on going. We’ve come together, supported one another, organised ourselves and fought back. If nothing else, as we head into potentially months of lockdown and uncertainty, it proves what we can accomplish standing together as one.

Below, we’ve pulled together a non-exhaustive list of some of the biggest moments, fights and wins of this year to take stock and inspire us all into action in the new year. 


Anti-Brexit protests on the Irish Border

Leaving the EU feels like a distant memory at this point – but for the protesters who gathered on the Irish border on January 31 (the day the UK officially left the EU) it was very much on the forefront of their minds. The anti-Brexit campaigners were demanding that Northern Ireland continue to have a voice in the EU after the UK leaves. 

In Northern Ireland, where this protest took place, 56 per cent of people voted to remain, with Ireland being left very much in limbo since the referendum was called.


Jamaica 50 flight

In the aftermath of the Windrush scandal in 2018, deportation flights to Jamaica were halted. They resumed in 2019, with a flight departing on February 6 that year. This year, another flight was scheduled to depart in February. Despite the government stating that ‘only the most dangerous foreign national offenders’ would be removed, critics and campaigners raised concerns that this wasn’t the full picture, with many of the people onboard serving time for minor offences.

Photo by Theo McInnes

In the run-up to the flight, now shadow justice minister David Lammy leaked the recommendations of the Windrush Lesson’s Learned review which recommended an end to FNO deportation charter flights. A concerted campaign by lawyers, campaigners and activists, as well as a demo outside Downing Street, saw at least half of those due to be deported saved. The moment set the tone for migrant rights campaigns across the year and laid the foundations for Priti Patel’s infamous ‘activist lawyers’ attack lines.

Climate strikers celebrate one year of monthly action

One year after they launched with a huge demonstration in London, the school strikers were back in February, celebrating a year of monthly actions which had seen huge turnouts, including tens of thousands for the Global Climate Strike in September 2019. 


Strippers union wins recognition

In March, a landmark tribunal ruling saw dancers at London strip clubs Browns and Horns granted worker status. Prior to this, they were misclassified as ‘independent contractors’, which means they had no access to even the most basic rights at work. The new ruling opened the door for the dancers to claim worker’s rights such as paid annual leave, a guaranteed pay for all hours worked, the right to take maternity or sick leave without the risk of termination, protection against workplace harassment and the right to organise through a trade union.

Speaking at the time, Sonia Nowak, the claimant in the case said: “I hope this is a great beginning for all dancers, who will now see that we can fight for our rights.”  

Mutual Aid Groups

March was a frantic month which saw a national lockdown imposed amid the Coronavirus pandemic. Starting in Lewisham before exploding across the country, COVID-19 mutual aid groups saw local communities come together to support one another during the first brutal lockdown. From collecting shopping and medication for those trapped in their homes to beginning to organise around local and national issues, mutual aid groups reasserted the power of grassroots solidarity and action.


SWARM’s Hardship Fund

The national lockdowns hit everyone hard, and though the furlough scheme helped support millions, there were tens of thousands who fell through the cracks. Many saw their livelihoods snatched away from them overnight and were faced with destitution. One such group were sex workers.

In response, SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement) launched a hardship fund to help support those in need. Writing in Huck at the time Molly Smith of SWARM said: “SWARM (a sex worker-led group of which I am a member) has distributed money to hundreds of sex workers through an emergency hardship fund, which we are asking people who still have an income to donate to. Through the Hardship Fund, we are enacting our politics in the most material way we can: SWARM believes that people who sell or trade sex deserve resources (like cash) in order to have safety and self-determination in their lives.”


PPE protests outside Downing Street

As the lockdown dragged on, those on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19 continued to raise concerns around the lack of proper protection for NHS staff and care workers. As the death toll for those groups skyrocketed, reaching into the hundreds, Dr. Meenal Viz – who was six months pregnant at the time – held a demonstration outside Downing Street.

Alongside her husband, she has since launched a Judicial Review into PPE practices which have seen significant changes made. In a press release the couple said: “Our judicial review shows that healthcare workers have a voice. Doctors, nurses and carers have been the backbone of our pandemic response – we deserve to know that we are safe when we are going into work, and our families deserve to be safe when we come back home. We have lost far too many of our colleagues, and we continue to seek accountability for this national tragedy.” 

Refugees in lockdown

In May, alarm bells were raised when an asylum seeker who’d been placed in a hotel, along with hundreds of others across different locations in Glasgow, was found dead. Campaigners and asylum seekers began to raise concerns around the conditions within the hotels, alleging lack of proper access to food, medical support and an inability to be socially distant.

The concerns were ignored by Mears Housing group (who were in charge of housing those seeking asylum in the city) which led to a demonstration in June. Tragically, at the end of June, one of those residents in the hotels, driven by the poor conditions, staged a knife attack which resulted in six people being hospitalised. The knifeman was shot by police. 


Black Lives Matter

In May, the viral video of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis city police sparked protests across the world. Building on the Black Lives Matter movement that has periodically erupted in reaction to similar killings, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets of the UK’s towns and cities, with attention quickly focusing on the despicable record of our police forces here.

Anger and frustration spilled out across the country, with particularly heavy-handed policing in London seeing violent clashes across weekends in June. Horses were charged into a crowd of demonstrators, with one police officer knocking herself off her horse by riding into a traffic light.

In Bristol, a statue of slaver Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into the harbour. A frantic national conversation ensued, with the Government setting up yet another inquiry into racism, led by controversial adviser Munira Mirza. 

Marcus Rashford’s open letter

On June 14, as the summer holidays approached, footballer Marcus Rashford wrote an open letter to the Government pleading with them to extend free school meals across the summer, as they had done for the Easter Holidays. Two days later, following pressure from Rashford and the media, the Government U-turned, committing to feeding the poorest during the holidays.

Later in the year, in October, Rashford once again approached the Government, asking for an extension of free school meals vouchers, and investment into schemes designed to ensure no child went hungry over the half term. As the Government refused to back down, restaurants and businesses across the country committed to feeding those children. In November, following huge public pressure, the Government eventually U-turned once more. 


Union busts cleaning company over PPE

In May, outsourced cleaners at an academy in South London walked out over missing pay and poor conditions. In the ensuing dispute the cleaners, who are members of United Voices of the World Union, demanded proper PPE and improved working conditions, including London Living Wage, to return to work. A manager of the cleaning company was caught on tape threatening to withhold PPE unless the cleaners got rid of the Union. A sustained campaign from them and the union eventually saw them win, with an increase in pay and conditions. 

Activists demand that banks stop funding fossil fuels

As bankers and finance ministers across the G20 met in July to “discuss and take urgent actions needed to address the global problems presented by the COVID-19 pandemic” activists from the UK student climate network projected a video onto the side of both the Bank of England and the treasury in London, urging ministers and officials to keep their promises to attach climate conditions to finance amid the growing climate catastrophe.

The video featured students in their bedrooms holding signs and speaking about why they were taking action. One student stated: “In the midst of COVID-19 and climate breakdown, The Bank of England is using public money to support the fossil fuel industry and other polluting industries.” Another student followed: “Meanwhile, the Treasury is ignoring the people forced to choose between food and rent, and prioritising companies’ profits over workers”. 

Beyond Politics

Whilst student strikers were using their voice to highlight Government sponsorship of the fossil fuel industry another group were using theirs in a slightly different way. In July, controversial co-founder of Extinction Rebellion launched a new political party, named ‘Beyond Politics’ by shoplifting food from Sainsburys in Camden.

A couple of weeks later the group, who have since rebranded as ‘Burning Pink’ caused outrage by throwing pink paint over the offices of various NGOs in London, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. The demonstration was designed to ‘highlight the inertia of big climate organisations’ but critics argue the group were targeting the wrong people. A planned ‘revolt’ by the group that was scheduled for August fizzled out and Hallam, along with others, were eventually arrested and held on remand for months in the Autumn, in part due to the paint stunt. 


Employment rights for foster care workers

In August, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) won a landmark ruling that will open the doors for employment rights for foster care workers throughout the UK, setting a major precedent for the sector. Foster care workers and IWGB members Jimmy and Christine Johnstone launched the case in 2017 after being left in fear for their lives and the life of a young person in their care. Following an initial victory, Glasgow City Council appealed the ruling.

This year, Edinburgh Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld the initial decision that Jimmy and Christine Johnstone were council employees. Speaking at the time Jimmy Johnstone said: “For years we were told we had no rights… We are delighted with the ruling and hopeful that it will encourage others to take up the fight. All foster care workers want is to have basic protections everyone should be entitled to so that we can do the best job we can for our young people.”


Extinction Rebellion

After having to postpone their third wave of action in May, autumn saw the return of Extinction Rebellion to the streets of London. Ten days of action saw over 600 people arrested, many for blocking roads in and around Parliament. Unlike previous rebellions, the actions did not include holding and camping in public space with activists leaving at the end of each day.

Though the blocking of various printing presses serving major right-wing newspapers made headlines, the action failed to muster the same coverage and, arguably, effect as previous rounds, with some now questioning whether the tactics employed have run their course. 

Photo by Theo McInnes


Trans Healthcare Fund

It has been another fractious year where trans rights have been concerned, with the right-wing media continuing its hostile tirade and the Government mostly declining to act on the overwhelmingly pro-trans rights responses to the Gender Recognition Act reform consultation. As the situation worsened, two friend set up the Trans Healthcare Fund to support trans people across the country. 

Speaking to Huck in October Sophie Gwen Williams said: “The premise is to raise money for the health care fund that trans people, trans non-binary people, can access funds from, that will go towards transition costs, hormone costs, and housing costs, because we know trans people will have much more precarious housing than cisgender people.” 

Photo by Theo McInnes

Osime Brown faces deportation

The case of Osime Brown once again brought the horrors and injustices of the Hostile Environment to the forefront of political conversation. Brown, who is an autistic 21-year-old, was convicted of robbery, attempted robbery and perverting the course of justice when he was 18. He was sent to prison and insists he was innocent.

He was born in Jamaica but left when he was four to come to the UK. Upon his release in October, the government planned to transfer him to a detention centre and then deport him. Following a sustained campaign Brown, who needs high levels of support, was released to his mother’s home once his prison sentence ended. The campaign to stop him being deported continues. 


Gig economy workers win high court battle over PPE

1 in 10 adults engage in ‘gig economy’ work, accounting for at least 4.7 million people working in the UK. Up until November, they were working with little to no health and safety protections amid a deadly pandemic. These same workers were taking considerable risks every day to keep the country going through two lockdowns. 

In a move that felt significantly overdue, the High Court ruled in favour of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB). Now, all workers must now have the right to refuse unsafe work and the right to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Alex Marshall, president of the IWGB and a former bicycle courier said: “We took decisive action to protect their health and safety and the Government must now do the same. These workers’ rights are now a public health issue.”

Manchester Rent Strikers win 30 per cent rent cut

After being forced to self-isolate in small rooms just two weeks after returning to Uni, often without adequate mental health support and food packages, students across the country have been speaking out about their University’s poor handling of COVID-19. At the University of Manchester (UoM) – where students were literally caged inside their accommodation at one point – protests erupted across campus, and a group of ten students occupied a university building in Fallowfield. As Huck reported earlier this year, the students documented their occupation to a global audience via their TikTok, @uomrentstrike.

After successfully winning a 30 per cent rent cut on November 26, the UoM rent strikers triggered a wave of action from other University students across the country, making it the largest student rent strike in 40 years. We have 18 universities and counting ready to launch rent strikes in January,” the Uom rent strikers say. “They are going to make sure this movement goes far beyond Manchester and wins concessions for every student in the UK.”

Credit: Manchester Rent Strike


Cleaners at Great Ormond Street win being brought in-house

This December marked a historic victory for outsourced cleaners at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) when it was announced that the NHS would employ them directly. The decision marked the end of a decade of outsourcing, which entailed lower pay and worse terms and conditions than those enjoyed by in-house staff – most of whom are white.

The cleaners receive statutory sick pay of just £95.85 a week, for example, while staff employed directly by the NHS receive full sick pay. The hospital’s 100 cleaners, who are members of United Voices of the World, had been set to vote in a ballot for strike action in their bid to be brought back in-house by the NHS. 

“The cleaners at GOSH are heroes,” said Petros Elia, UVW Co-Founder and Organiser. “And not because they were clapped for their work during the pandemic, but because they fought and won what they knew those claps could never deliver.”


As well as these pivotal moments, there have been huge mobilisations across communities by renters unions and local anti-gentrification campaigns. Climate activists up and down the country have continued to resist where they can and individual campaigns and support networks have carried on, under the radar, fighting for justice. There is so much hope, energy and passion among us, and a whole world to win. This year has shown what we can achieve when we fight for it. 

See you on the streets in 2021. 

Ben Smoke is Huck’s Politics Editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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