C-UK identity politics

Any campaign effort has to ask the question what it challenges, where it wants everyone to go and who the supporters are (ie: opponents, vision and public appeal). I have written about this before in one guise or another, but I think it would be good to look at this again introducing the concept of identity politics.

Since whenever new UK cycle campaigning has come about (10 years ago) we have made great strides in asking these three questions. The answers are:

Opponents

Designed-in car dependence, turbo capitalism, masculine political/economic structures, oil/road/car lobby and neoliberalised politics and media (profit before people)

Vision

Safe and comfortable spaces to live, move, work and play, suitable for young and old, for people of all walks of life, accessible by the widest constituent, diverse and inclusive

Public appeal

These are good places we want to see, they are places for everyone, where community and social collaboration thrives, people can meet and exchange big and small news, safe spaces to travel, shop and learn, to bring up the next generation teaching social justice from the word go!

When I look at We are Cycling UK (previously CTC), from here C-UK, I however cannot see these answers emerging from their communications, material and demeanour. I rarely hear C-UK talk about the transport transition for example. I still don’t understand how they conceptualise change and its processes. How they break down their goal (more people cycling?) into smaller campaigning steps, initiatives and projects. Where does the Big Bike Revival sit for example? The organisation, to me, is void of answers to the bigger questions of opponents, vision and public appeal.

By far the biggest hole I think is in the question of public appeal. What I have real and deep problems with is the identity politics that C-UK follow. Identity politics I here describe as campaigning from the inside of being and feeling like a “cyclist” and that a person with that identity has certain rights. There are various grave problems with this approach.

Firstly, the identity of the cyclist is not a homogenous one – internally and externally. This is often painfully evidenced by the internal discussions about what a cyclist ought to do, or not to do – what a real cyclist is. I am tired of these discussions. We also see external discussions about the expectations that are squarely levelled at a “typical cyclist” in the UK. In many ways the UK cyclist is a losing frame, not a winning one – at least currently. The identity of cyclist must be used carefully. Some thoughts here. Despite the negative frame C-UK does not seem to have an apparent communication strategy how to bridge that divide. I do not see a C-UK inclusively reclaiming effort of the cyclist frame (if this were expressly wished, in actual fact other initatives and projects might be more worthwhile).

Secondly, this is identity politics done by a (current) minority. This weakens the position, in more ways than one – and more often than not the minority status makes the position untenable. Due to the minority status with a negative frame, the group of self-identified cyclists risks simply to come across as righteous and arrogant. The public rightly asks: why would cyclists’ cause be prioritised over other causes (rights, transport modes, space etc)? This situation quite possibly is different in high-cycling countries, but the UK has to start from their own position of low-cycling and cycling exclusion. In my opinion C-UK should painstakingly think through their public image. Perhaps a ‘market segmentation’ is needed to make good decisions about future campaigning (see Anable and Geller/Dill for starters). Perhaps an analysis what past iniatives and projects have worked and which have not worked could be helpful. I do not want to the run the risk of dictating policy to C-UK. This groups of committed cyclists must find their own grounding in public discourse.

Lastly, I am writing this in the slow process of leaving the UK and at a time where I am reconnecting with Germany. This gives me some freedom to critically look at the UK campaigning scene, in comparison but also with less involvement and some distance. I am making these points as an observer of the scene for many years, and quite a few years of participation in UK cycle campaigning on various levels. I also make these comments from an academic position of engaging with social theory and in particular social psychology, political sciences and social movement theories. The situation that C-UK’s campaigning arm is in is deeply problematic, as it positions itself outside society with little link to the public.  The messages that C-UK sends are regularly missionary and evangelist – the annoying, niggling and nagging voice of the current cyclist. It is hard, as anyone might have guessed by now, to win hearts and minds in such a distanced way. It will not be accomplished by means of repetitively shouting how much fun transport cycling is if this is not the everyday experience of public spaces that a member of the public has. Playing the identity politics card is a dead end.

Where does Mum and Dad go who would like to cycle but think the current roads were too hostile. C-UK is not warmly welcoming them. Due to identity politics, Mum and Dad must become a cyclist, one of them – eagerly dust down their bikes and start riding. This does not make sense. We need to build alliances for better streets, communities, reclaiming urban spaces for people. For that we do not need to become cyclists right now. All of us are possible future cyclists. Pedal potential. If, if, if, big if, we manage to sort out, humanise and civilise, our streets and roads – organise politically and demand space for walking, cycling, civic life.

Why do I care at all? C-UK recently left the ECF. An interesting move. UK cycling first? Cexit? I wish this organisation could re-evaluate its ungainly position and come out as a touring club or a real political actor on the national plane. Message alignment must take place. This ultimately is a debate about space in cities, the need of next generations to move and meet. C-UK’s position is too narrow and exclusive, making it a debate about the current cyclist and their rights.

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