ourEconomy: Opinion

To win, progressives must tell more compelling stories and understand power

The success of the gay rights movement reveals keys to creating a better future

Harry Quilter-Pinner
21 December 2021, 8.26pm
Ian McKellen, Michael Cashman and Peter Tatchell protesting against section 28 in 1988
Peter J Walsh / Alamy Stock Photo

Over the last few decades there has been a remarkable shift in the lives of gay and lesbian people in the UK. As an LGBTQ person I am very aware of this. Going back even a few decades I would have been in the closet or in jail. Today I can hold my partner’s hand in public, get married and have children.

Of course, there is more to be achieved. Lesbian, gay, bisexual – and, in particular, transgendered and non-binary people – still face prejudice, exclusion and violence. In the US, this has included a wave of anti-trans legislation.

Nevertheless, the overall change for LGBTQ people has been remarkable.

Many people, such as the psychologist Stephen Pinker, attribute this shift to the inevitable passage of time – as younger generations with ‘post-material’ identities replace older generations. Progressives often share a similar vision, and attribute progress to the actions of movements and political leaders. As Martin Luther King said in 1968: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

Whether from a liberal or progressive perspective, the past decade – with the fallout of the global financial crisis, the rise of right-wing populism, the unequal impacts of COVID-19 and the collective failure to tackle the climate crisis – has shattered this idea of necessary progress.

Yet we should not despair. Progress is not inevitable, but it is still possible.

New research by the think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR, which I work for) and the Runnymede Trust, reveals that big change, historically, has not just been due to better evidence or having the most righteous people in the room – but effective storytelling and understanding how power operates.

Firstly, the gay rights movement was successful because it shifted the opinion of people in power and across the country. The movement reframed the issue from a moral one about ‘sin’ to a legal one about ‘tolerance’. This was typified by the Wolfenden Report, published in 1957, which recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”.

This recommendation was not justified on the basis that homosexuality should be embraced or was morally acceptable – but that it should be tolerated to ensure the law did not “intervene in the private life of citizens”. Indeed, the legalisation of homosexual acts in private in England and Wales, in 1967, ultimately led to greater crackdowns on gay people who were engaging in homosexuality in public.

Getting vocal and channelling power

It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s – when gay people became more vocal and dictated the narrative following the introduction of Section 28 (a law which prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities) and the AIDS crisis – that real progress was made. In 1987 nearly three quarters of people thought homosexuality was always or mostly wrong. Today that is closer to one-fifth of people.

Secondly, the gay rights movement increased the power of those seeking to make change. They did this by bringing together coalitions to exert pressure on people in power – like the organisation OutRage!, which staged public protests – and by increasing the number of LGBTQ people in parliament, the media and business.

The implication for progressives today is simple: we must focus on storytelling that taps into people’s values and emotions, whilst focusing on new ways to build and contest power.

This is already beginning to happen. The recent Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion mobilisations, catalysed by the passion and innovation of younger generations, are significantly shifting public opinion around the climate crisis and racial injustice.

But younger generations cannot do this alone. Delivering bold change – whether that be bolder climate action, or tackling inequality and systemic racism – demands that we confront entrenched corporate interests, an often hostile media environment and a public increasingly distrustful of our political institutions.

The movement as a whole must broaden its coalitions of support, embolden like-minded leaders in business and the media, shift the agendas of political parties and win hearts, not just minds, across the UK and beyond.

The intersecting crises of environmental breakdown, ageing populations and rapid technological change will put severe pressure on our economic and social systems. These societal transformations could exacerbate existing inequalities in wealth, opportunity and power. Or they could be the burning platform needed to inspire a progressive agenda that locks in prosperity and justice for all.

Which of these futures plays out depends on whether progressives – from researchers to campaigners, politicians to protestors – go beyond just being ‘right’ to being savvy in their efforts to reshape society.

Ukraine's fight for economic justice

Russian aggression is driving Ukrainians into poverty. But the war could also be an opportunity to reset the Ukrainian economy – if only people and politicians could agree how. The danger is that wartime ‘reforms’ could ease a permanent shift to a smaller state – with less regulation and protection for citizens.
Our speakers will help you unpack these issues and explain why support for Ukrainian society is more important than ever.

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Economics journalism that puts people and planet first. Get the ourEconomy newsletter Join the conversation: subscribe below


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData