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Progressive Activists

Who are Progressive Activists?

(13% of the British public)

Opinionated, confident, outward looking and restless for change, this segment is probably the most familiar to climate campaigners. Progressive Activists are very engaged across a wide range of issues, with climate change central among them. From voting, to protesting and signing petitions, members of this segment are boldly progressive in their politics (with the most left-wing views on social and economic issues) and consistently active in their own lives (politically and personally) on climate change.

But the Progressive Activists are also exhausted by the division in politics, and the most likely to feel that the country is divided. They are the most likely to believe the system is rigged to serve the rich and influential, and share a disaffection/fatalism about society with Disengaged Battlers and Loyal Nationals, despite having very different demographic profiles. Progressive Activists are united in their belief that inequality is a major problem – sexism, racism, and economic injustice.

Demographically, this segment trends the youngest, has the highest proportion who are university educated, and a large number of high-earners. This segment overwhelmingly supports Labour and voted to remain in the European Union (EU)

While they are the most likely segment to believe that people should stick to their beliefs and fight (35%), the majority (51%) would still opt for compromise to get things done – so although they’re ideological and passionate about what they believe, they recognise they can’t drive change on their own.

This segment is the least proud of being British, and of their class. They largely reject nation-based identities in favour of a ‘human’, ‘global’ or European’ identity. Progressive Activists tend to feel that British identity is being strengthened through diversity (72%).

The table below highlights what an ideal UK looks like for this segment, as well as the issues that are most important to them, the messengers they trust, and their preferred news sources.

Ideal UKMost important issues (Feb)Most important issues (Sept)Trusted messengersMost read news sources
1Environmentally - friendlyThe environment and climate changeThe environment and climate changeClimate scientistBBC
2CompassionateHealthcare and the NHSHealthcare and the NHSDavid AttenboroughThe Guardian
3TolerantBritain leaving the EUBritain leaving the EUEnvironmental charitiesTwitter

Why do you have to demonstrate your nationality or the lack of it? If you live somewhere and you’re a part of the community, isn’t that the most important thing?”

...the term ‘British’ is a much broader statement and it leaves room for a lot more – it’s a bit more inclusive because you can say, ‘I’m British’ and then ‘British-Caribbean’ for example, ‘British-African’, ‘British-Indian’. Whereas ‘English’ sounds very small, closed off, and as if you’re just English and you don’t want to be anything else.”

Going to a very predominantly white school, living in a predominantly white area, it becomes very apparent when people are not just ignorant but uneducated on issues – not just Black issues but issues representing many marginalised groups in this country. I think it’s embarrassing because without the diversity and the groups that make up this country, the UK would not be what it is today.”

There is very little trust in the current Conservative government (92% indicated they were ‘not at all’ trusting in Boris Johnson before Covid-19) and a large majority disagree that ‘austerity cuts’ in public spending are justified or necessary. The ideal UK for Progressive Activists is one that is environmentally-friendly​, compassionate, tolerant, fair and ‘global’ in its outlook. 

​Progessive Activists on climate change

With the highest levels of concern about climate change, and the highest level of understanding that climate change is human-caused, Progressive Activists are the familiar, ‘usual suspects’ for many (but not all) campaigners on climate change. Of all the important issues facing the UK, the environment and climate change are top of their list. They are also the most likely to see climate change as a dominant issue that drives or underpins other social problems, with more than half (57%) voting for a political party because of its climate change policy, and they are the segment with the highest agreement with the view that tackling climate change requires radical, urgent change (83%).

Mothers at Extinction Rebellion’s Mothers March in London

The more that we destroy the environment around us – society will collapse if the environment continues to degrade. So, I think worrying about the political nuances or whatnot is a short-term thing when if we destroy the world that we live in, all of the other issues are going to become secondary and meaningless.”

Progressive Activists feel a variety of negative emotions about climate change – they are angry, scared and anxious, and they feel guilty. 

Only Progressive Activists and Civic Pragmatists say they are as worried about climate change as they are about other environmental issues, like plastics, deforestation and air pollution. Against all other environmental issues, concern for the livelihoods of farmers is the lowest among this segment. 

In common with other segments, they trust climate scientists and David Attenborough to tell the truth on climate change, as well as environmental charities. Unlike other segments, they have higher levels of trust in the school strikers and even – uniquely among the segments – Extinction Rebellion.

Average level of agreement per segment that environmental campaigners are hypocrites

Average level of agreement per segment that environmental campaigners are hypocrites

Progressive Activists’ views about the credibility of environmental campaigners distinguish them from other segments, who tend to agree with their aims but disapprove of their tactics

Percentage per segment who agree with the aims and tactics of environmental activists

Percentage per segment who agree with the aims and tactics of environmental activists

Progressive Activists are split on this (55% agree with the aims and the tactics), but are still 30 points ahead of the second most supportive segment, Civic Pragmatists. Even so, there is some recognition among Progressive Activists that they may be unique in their worldview, and that climate action needs support across the political spectrum. so far as I can make out, Extinction Rebellion seems to be a more middle class activity. But I think airlines, motorways – the real destructive stuff that happens day in, day out can be tackled and I think there’s a real place for activism there … I do agree though with their very direct and aggressive activism. I think that’s exactly the kind of thing that is needed.”

It can’t just be us radical lefties … It’s like how people saw Occupy Wall Street as being a bit nuts. It’s that same sort of thinking for the Extinction groups. But I think unless the general public are going to get involved, it’s not going to change.”

For Progressive Activists, climate action is not primarily the responsibility of individuals, but rather of governments and big businesses. Ordinary people’s responsibility is to vote and be angry.

Protestors at the Extinction Rebellion demonstration on Waterloo Bridge, London

...if the corporations would only be regulated in such a way that they would not produce so much pollution, they would not put things in so much plastic, they would not do so much damage to the environment – the blame needs to be shifted from the individual to the corporations and the government.”

I think our individual responsibility with the environment is holding governments to their responsibility. The trouble with governments is that they’re short-term and are really only interested in what happens today, over the next four years and whether they can maintain power or not … our individual responsibility I think should be getting more angry about the lack of action that is taken.”

‘Yes’ and ‘no’ policies

The majority of Progressive Activists support taxing frequent flyers and are opposed to airport expansion. They believe in the importance of individual action, even if big companies and other countries keep polluting (and even though companies and governments should bear the greatest responsibility), but they are very distrusting of corporations doing the right thing. All segments endorse recycling, and to a lesser extent reducing food waste, but Progressive Activists are the only segment to show majority support for reducing their meat and dairy intake as a personal step on climate change. That said, even Progressive Activists are dubious about veganism as a lifestyle response to climate change.

We should all do as much as we can but, obviously, the limits are going to be different for everyone depending on how much time, energy and health you have.”

I wouldn’t have an issue with extra taxes on flights in the same way as extra taxes on smoking, taxes on fuel or diesel cars etc. Again, I think there’s a balance of public choice and the government saying, that’s fine, if you want to do that, it’s all good, but there’s a payment that needs to be made for the choices that you have out there.”

Progressive Activists on Covid-19

The people who are most affected by the coronavirus are the disadvantaged, the immigrant community, and people who are working class. Because it comes back to what I said before. They are forming the majority of the vital services that we are now totally and utterly relying on. So, yes, our divisions are becoming more and more exposed.”

During the first lockdown, there was strongest agreement (78%) among this segment that, although Covid-19 is a national emergency, it is critical to tackle climate change at the same time, even if it costs more in the short term. In September, this sentiment increased to 92%

They are most strongly in support of using public money to support low-carbon industries and technologies as we recover from the Covid-19 crisis. Sentiments about using Covid-19 as an opportunity for change are prevalent across this segment.

This is being treated as an existential crisis and we’ve gladly shut down our economy for the sake of saving – I mean, the number of lives being lost by the potential of an environmental calamity will be exponentially higher than what we’re going to experience this year from this pandemic. The reactions we’ve had from governments across the world in addressing that does hopefully give a bit of hope that they could have a similar response and enact certain policies and we would have that collective awareness of the impact of what we’re doing, that it might be inspirational to alleviate some of the environmental issues that we’re having come forth.”

Despite being exhausted by the division in politics, Progressive Activists retain some hope that Covid-19 could be a stepping stone towards building back better, not only for the environment, but in terms of a better society.

A group in Hampshire start a new allotment to grow their own food

I think the hope is that we learn from what we’re going through at the moment and we produce something better. I would make an analogy that our parents and grandparents went through two world wars and we built a welfare state and a dream for a better life out of that.”

The absolute best case scenario would be ... that having gone through various difficulties, people said, ‘right, no more of that’ and built a better society. We have learnt in the past month or so just what is possible. People sleeping rough have been housed. That was impossible until it was possible.”

I think that this is an opportunity to maybe set the standard for the world and say, ‘we’re a diverse country, this is how to do things’, and maybe get a bit of respect.”

Engaging the Progressive Activists

Channel their desire for radical action and their antagonism towards government by mobilising them to open up new fronts for change. Persuade them that bringing the rest of the British population along with them will speed up rather than slow down the transformation they desperately want to see. Help them build bridges with segments who share many of their values (e.g. Civic Pragmatists) but who are intimidated by their level of political commitment and activism.

Emphasise climate justice

Progressive Activists have an understanding that the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable groups reflects and is largely driven by structural inequalities. Give voice to their belief that those who are poor or marginalised should be given special importance, wherever in the world they are.

Acknowledge their pessimism, but avoid fatalism 

It is important to validate active negative emotions, including anxiety, anger and helplessness, while avoiding messages that are overly optimistic or positive. However, too much despair could lead to burnout and defeat. Build efficacy and avoid fatalism by balancing messages about the scale and urgency of the problem with bold measures that could genuinely shift the dial. Consider supporting this group with resources that help to alleviate climate anxiety. 

Channel their antagonism in a constructive way

Recognise their strongly held antagonism towards the government, but help them see that participation in protest movements, for example, is not a substitute for other forms of political activity. Channel their energy – and likely eloquence on the subject of climate change – towards meaningful engagement with their local MPs and with people in their community who could be encouraged to do the same.

Challenge them to create and hold new spaces

Arguments about incremental improvements do not hold sway with this segment. They want urgent, radical change from government and big business. Use this ambition to mobilise them in new areas (e.g. making natural gas the new coal) and against key targets (e.g. banks financing fossil fuel companies).

Manage tensions surrounding COP26

Progressive Activists are likely to feel conflicted about COP26, as, while they will want it to succeed, they will find it challenging to support government policies. Help them find a voice on COP26 that navigates this tension. 

Be careful when linking Covid-19 to the climate crisis

This is the only segment where making a direct link between Covid-19 and environmental degradation is likely to land consistently well. Talk about the relationship, but don’t overplay the opportunities as we respond to the pandemic. This group must hear loud and clear that not everyone feels the same.

Encourage them to help build the societal mandate

Progressive Activists stand apart from the other segments in many ways. This toolkit can equip them with the insights they need to widen the consensus. It’s not about diluting their beliefs or finding the lowest common denominator: it’s about helping them to begin the conversation from where the other person is. This is critical for avoiding a culture war on climate change.

Craft climate messages that identify common cause with other groups

This segment see the most division and conflict in society and they are the least likely to agree with the view that we look after each other in 2020, so it is important to consider similarities with other segments, where possible. In fact, this segment shares concerns with the two ‘Disengaged’ groups around wealth inequality, and identify some of the same people as being to blame (e.g. unaccountable corporations). This may help to improve Progressive Activists’ sense of collective efficacy and their ability to find common cause with other segments.

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