The lack of national infrastructure to facilitate communication between local groups also led to groups drifting away from the organisation. “[In Newcastle] we never really felt connected to other local groups like ourselves,” Abel explains. “The only other one we could really see was London, and I think that’s because there was no structure for local groups to get together.” For various reasons – some political, some organisational – groups including Bristol YS4C even left the network altogether.
Inadequate investment in the network itself was reflected in how the organisation allocated funding. Sometimes, Abel says, money was spent on spectacular stunts rather than essentials for local groups. He recalls an incident from summer 2020 when UKSCN funded some huge projections onto the Houses of Parliament and other London buildings. “There were still a lot of places where local groups existed and had energy, but would feel quite detached from that,” he says. “In Newcastle, we’d watch these amazing things happening [with] a lot of resources going in and be like, oh okay, we actually just need some flyers printing.”
Simultaneously, the influence of NGO-style organising on UKSCN was sapping dynamism from the movement. Anna explains that many in the organisation felt pressure to act more like an NGO, such as when courting funders. “I was going to lots of venues and I was basically saying the same speech to a room full of white middle-aged businessmen in suits,” she tells Novara Media. “I love going to active protests and I love organising things – but what I don’t like is doing the same thing again and again.”
While the youth strikers agree that having adult support staff was invaluable, Abel argues they also “became quite dependent on them”. When their one paid staffer moved on at the start of 2020, George explains that keeping the movement going became a lot harder because there were then a number of tasks that the strikers hadn’t learnt or been trained to do themselves.
At the same time, George argues that NGO culture was “not very conducive to taking opportunities as they come,” and began to restrict the movement’s activities. After one strike, young people in London were planning an afterparty on Westminster Bridge. “Some people came and said: ‘You can’t do that, because what if someone falls off the bridge? You would be responsible, and you don’t have any insurance’,” he recalls. “We were having to behave as if we were this large organisation with employees and a fiscal year and stuff and we just weren’t – we were just some kids and we just wanted to do what we wanted to do.”
According to Bo, the speed and suddenness with which UKSCN grew meant that rather than developing their own longer-term, movement-oriented strategy beyond the tactic of striking, they instead rushed to ape NGO-style organising models – behaving how they thought a big environmental organisation was supposed to behave. This led to the launch of national campaigns separate from the strikes, such as a campaign around climate education. Bo argues that while these campaigns were – and many still are – worthwhile in and of themselves, without being part of a broader strategy, “a lot of people joining [UKSCN] national got sucked into that, and the actual building of the movement slightly fell by the wayside.”
For Lola, what UKSCN was missing was the right kind of strategic support. “We had support in terms of people doing tasks for us and helping us with specific things,” she explains. “But there was really nobody there helping us not to make the mistakes that so many leftist movements have made before.”
As more people joined the network, UKSCN struggled to resolve both political and interpersonal problems, whilst also replicating dynamics widely observed across the left and wider social justice movements, such as “cancel culture”. This was especially true of the culture which emerged in UKSCN’s internal communications on Slack – with the added complication that the young people involved were of a wide range of ages. “There’s a big difference between people who are, like, 19 and people who are, like, 13,” says George. “These people were all interacting together.”
A lack of political education – particularly around racism – amplified the group’s problems. “I remember once on a UKSCN Zoom call, I think I brought up the topic of climate reparations [for countries in the Global South], and everyone was like, ‘oh, well we can’t trust them to spend our money’,” says 16-year-old Scarlett Westbrook. “When somebody was racist, nobody would say anything, and because we didn’t talk about it, because we didn’t tackle the political misinformation and xenophobia, it got worse and worse and worse.”
Lola explains that these instances happened relatively frequently. “I remember that there was one thread [on Slack] where someone said we needed to meet with Boris Johnson, and I was like, ‘he’s a racist, we don’t want to become a photo op for Boris Johnson, that’s not necessary’, and this person was like ‘no, that’s not true, he’s not a racist’.”
While some – though not all – youth strikers say instances of outright racism were at times “managed reasonably well” (in that people would be kicked out of the network), issues that were more complicated – or “problematic”, as the youth strikers describe them – were often addressed in ways that caused further problems.
“I remember instances of people saying things on the Slack, and then people snapping back, ‘you’re not supposed to say that, that’s the wrong way to say it’,” says Anna. “I think this resulted in people not talking about how they felt as much, because they felt so scared that they didn’t know the right way to say something.”
“Someone would say something that was not radical enough, or problematic, and people would come down on them like a tonne of bricks,” George recalls. “There would be these Slack threads that were like 300 replies long, and people would be really upset by that.”
Anna emphasises that those attempting to address such issues often had good intentions, but the imperative for people to “take accountability” often led to a group dynamic which mimicked the “call-out culture” of the very online left. The result, she says, was that Slack became an unproductive space – and because it remained “the core of the movement”, it became a key factor in people’s disengagement in general.
“It was interesting how something that was, at the start, very essential to the growth of the movement and was a very warm and welcoming place became a very hostile place to be,” she explains. “It became a place where a lot of people felt they were just being shut down, and obviously people don’t want to be in that kind of environment.”
Anna feels there are things which could have been done to improve UKSCN’s internal culture. “I think as an organisation we could have sat down and done a workshop on how to have these conversations with people in a constructive way,” she says. “But we never did because there was a lack of focus on regeneration and wellbeing within the movement. And then I think when [the network] grew so big, it was difficult to do that on a wide-scale, because people don’t want to sit on endless Zoom calls – whereas if you’re doing it in person it’s much easier to sit in a circle in a room and have that kind of conversation.”
Then there was the phenomenon of the ‘activist influencer’. Anna, who co-founded UKSCN and had a high-profile media role, was often portrayed as the “leader of the youth strikes” by the media. She says a culture of competitiveness developed between her and other strikers designated as media spokespeople. “It became almost a competition to see who has the most followers on Instagram, who was getting the most media interviews,” she recalls. “I started basing my self-worth on that.”
Abel says such media attention began to have a negative effect on the organisation’s politics. “There was definitely a culture of, almost, celebrities amongst UKSCN,” he says. Weight was given to “who’s got the ‘best politics’ – and that’s not based on, like, open discussions, but more on whose word had the most sway.” This culture, Abel adds, also informed how people began to go about engaging with the movement. “Things could become quite self congratulatory, like ‘look at all these great books I’m reading’, rather than, like, are you engaging with new people, are we actually making new connections?”
Scarlett says such problems were due in part to the fact that the organisation “didn’t have a proper identity.” Although there were attempts to resolve cultural problems within the group, they “happened too late for it to have made a proper difference”.
George agrees. “There were efforts made later on to address things, and a group that was set up to do accountability work and stuff to get rid of the toxicity,” he says. “But the trouble with saying ‘the culture is toxic’ is that cultures are very difficult to just change.”
The tactic stops working.
The movement’s growth throughout the first half of 2019 was propelled by the replicability of the strike as a tactic. By the summer, however, the momentum behind the strikes had started to wane. By the time planning began for September’s global week of action, the whole idea, Anna explains, “was to try and bring momentum back”.
And for one day, they did. On 20 September, more than 300,000 people participated in walk-outs and demonstrations across the country. Internationally, participation was somewhere between 6 million and 7.6 million. Notably, it wasn’t just young people out in the streets this time: the youth strikers had invited everyone – from parents to NGOs to trade unions – to join them.
But in the months that followed, participation in the strikes dwindled again. For many of the activists, the September strike felt like a finale. “I see 20 September as the last big thing that worked really well. After that, it became very difficult to continue doing stuff,” says George.
For Izzy, the problem was that it didn’t feel like the strikes were working. “[The September strike] was this amazing moment. But it was also this very demoralising moment, because we’d had 350,000 people out on strike, which was the largest ever environmental protest in the UK, and then nothing happened,” she explains. “And I think that was the point at which we were like, this isn’t going to get us the change that we want.”
“It was never framed as though there was a next step,” Abel recalls. “It was like we’re going to do this big day, and everything will be sorted.” For Noga, articulating a plan beyond 20 September was made harder by the way activists had mobilised during the summer. “It was very difficult to keep up the momentum when a lot of the language we’d used around the September strike had painted it as a massive one-off.”
Another factor was simply burnout. “In February and March [of 2019], [the strikes] seemed to happen spontaneously,” Anna explains. But despite the huge turnout in September, “it was really hard to squeeze out those numbers”.
For many in UKSCN, the “shock” of the strikes had simply worn off. “I think what made the youth strikes so exciting and powerful at the start was the ‘fuck it, let’s do it’ attitude, where not everything was fully controlled or planned,” Abel says. But by opening the September strike up to groups from across civil society, he argues, “we were far more playing by the normal rules of doing things”.
Should the loss of momentum around the strikes have signalled a death knell for the movement? George suggests not, arguing that had there been proper organisational structures in place, the movement could have developed a plan for regeneration. The problem was that they didn’t.
“It wasn’t the momentum [being lost] that was the problem – it’s that the loss of momentum exposed all the issues underneath,” he explains. “Because we had no overarching written strategy, and we had no tactical ideas beyond the strikes, there was nothing to unify around.”
“It happens a lot, right? Social media-driven movements explode and then they fizzle as there’s no political substance to back them up, and we didn’t know that because we were all, like, 15,” he continues. “As soon as the thing you’re unified around collapses, all that you’re left with is the conflicts. And that was what ultimately killed it off.”
Building for the future.
Since September 2019, UKSCN has faced a series of external obstacles. In February 2020, plans for the network’s first national conference had to be scrapped due, ironically, to flooding caused by Storm Dennis. The same month, UKSCN’s paid staffer left the organisation – a departure which made the day-to-day running of the network more difficult. Whilst Bristol YS4C managed to pull off a local strike of around 30,000 – including Greta Thunberg – nationally organised strikes have continued to draw much smaller crowds.
Greta Thunberg attends a youth strike in Bristol, February 2020. Dylan Martinez/Reuters
In March, the UK’s first national lockdown put an end to physical meetings and mobilisations altogether. While youth strike groups internationally launched so-called ‘digital strikes’, attempts to get them off the ground in the UK fell flat. “If physical strikes were already losing momentum before Covid, it’s very difficult to go from that to digital strikes and expect them to pick up momentum,” Anna explains. “I think [Covid-19] really kind of finalised what was going to happen eventually anyway.”
Some say it’s now too late for UKSCN to be revived as the national organising force it was back in 2019. “I’m not very hopeful,” Scarlett tells Novara Media. “I think the lack of a cohesive aim has left us too divided to move forwards.”
For others, however, Covid-19 has been an opportunity for the movement to pause and regroup. Izzy describes herself as “cautiously optimistic”, explaining that it’s been a time to “reflect on where we’ve been, what we’ve done and how we move forward”.
Everyone agrees that if the movement does make a comeback, it won’t be just with monthly strikes – amongst other things, Covid-19 has made missing more school untenable. Instead, youth climate activists want to focus on local campaigns, develop a diversity of tactics – and, for many, a more radical, social justice-oriented politics too.
“Obviously protests are still going to happen, but we need to disrupt the machinery of capital,” George argues. “We need to do things like rent strikes and mass fare evasions, and build more solidarity with other groups.” For Noga, the time for strikes has now passed, and UKSCN should instead take lessons in civil disobedience – from mass sit-ins to breaking onto discussion panels – from the Sunrise Movement in the US. UKSCN also needs to be “more explicit” in its demands, she adds – particularly when “we’ve seen the way phrases like ‘green recovery’ and ‘build back better’ have been so easily co-opted by the government”.
When Izzy and thousands of other young people walked out into the streets in February 2019, none of them could have foreseen the scale of the movement they were going to be part of. There’s no doubt that the legacy of the UK strikes will be significant – perhaps nowhere more so than in the political growth of those involved.
“My politics have definitely become more left-wing since getting involved in this stuff,” she explains. “At the risk of sounding cliché, it was very much the youth strikes that, sort of, politicised me.”
Youth strikers march through London, May 2019. Patrycja Borecka
The question that remains, however, is whether the missteps made by the movement can be instructive for the future. For many, there’s an underlying sense that things could have turned out differently had the movement been able to prioritise political education – especially in terms of resolving political and personal tensions.
George believes five changes could have put UKSCN on a different course. First, embracing an explicitly progressive politics from the outset, and inducting new members into it. Second, having a clear organisational structure based on voluntary hierarchy and democracy. Third, having a fairer and more straightforward system for raising and distributing funds. Fourth, developing a “tactical roster” or “escalation plan” for political action. Finally, forming two branches within the network – one concerned with “politicking and meeting MPs”, the other with “protests, direct action, civil disobedience and grassroots organisation”.
For others, however, there is also the question of how climate movements can ever rise to the scale of the challenge facing them – particularly without falling in line behind the NGOs which dominate the movement.
“How do you, like, break through and do that kind of thing, while not just adhering to the standard environmentalist understanding of what climate politics is?” Bo asks. “I think that’s still very up in the air.”
Clare Hymer is a commissioning editor at Novara Media.
- Since the publication of this piece, Fridays For Future Scotland has been in touch with Novara Media to clarify that it has never been affiliated to UKSCN, and has always organised separately. An organiser within the Scottish movement was contacted during the reporting of this piece, but an interview could not take place.