History of British social movements Part 2

This is the second part of a series of posts on the history of social movements in Britain. It includes 2 social movements: community movements and the Disability Movement. See part 1 here and a previous post that explains what social movements are.

Community movements

I’ve divided the community movement up into eight areas.

Community Centre movement

This article gives a history of the community centres movement from the 1800s to present.

Community development work

This article describes the history of state-funded community development work from the 1950s to the present.

Community organising

Hackney Unites was active from 2009-2014. They organised an anti-austerity community conference in 2010 and a festival in 2013. Hackney Unite produced ‘An Introduction to Community Organising‘.

National reformist community organising organisations doing good work include Citizens UK and Community Organisers. Read the Community Organising explanation of what community organising is here.

The Labour Party Community Organising Unit COU) was set up in 2018 to train members to campaign in 30 marginals around local issues in the 2019 general election. Labour trained thousands of community organisers in the technique of persuasive conversations. [1] The COU was disbanded in 2020.

Community wealth building

This aims to improve “the ability of communities and individuals to increase asset ownership, anchor jobs locally by broadening ownership over capital, help achieve key environmental goals, expand the provision of public services and ensure local economic stability” [2]

This is also know as municipal socialism, there have been several waves in the UK. Contemporary examples include the Preston Model, Salford Model, Haringey Council, North Ayrshire’s Council, Newham Council, Islington Council.

Community and tenant/renter unions

These formed in the last decade. Three focus on supporting their members with housing and community issues using radical direct action tactics; they are ACORN, London Renters Union, Generation Rent and Living Rent in Scotland. There is also Unite Community, which offers the ‘service union’ benefits to those not in full-time work, so part-time or unemployed and campaigns on workplace and community issues. There is also Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth and Sisters Uncut. See this article on critical support for renters’ unions.

Community rights movement

This originated in the US, primarily driven by the Community and Environmental Defence Fund (CEDF). They describe community rights work as including environmental rights, workers’ rights, rights of nature and democratic rights. Read a history of the community rights movement here. There has been a first step in the UK to set up a community rights movement in the formation of the Community Chartering Network. This comes from a successful community charter in Falkirk, Scotland, that resulted in the Scottish Government banning fracking in Scotland. Read the story here.

Community social welfare programs

These are generally run by local governments or NGOs (Non-government organisations). A good example of this in the UK was the British Restaurants – communal kitchens set up in 1940 to provide cheap food so everyone could eat.

Communities have been under attack since the 1970s, with many basic services and social centres no longer in operation. Community social welfare organising now involves activists running basic services in their communities to fill the gaps where the state has been rolled back. The classic example would be the Black Panthers Free Breakfast for Children in the US in the 1960s/70s.

In 2014/2015 a pay as you feel cafe called Skipchen in Bristol served over 20,000 meals. Can Cook in Garston, Liverpool provides thousands of free hot lunches for children in poverty in the Merseyside area. Foodhall is a public dining room and kitchen in Sheffield that is managed by the community, for the community, tackling social isolation and encourages integration across a diverse range of groups. Foodhall is campaigning for a National Food Service, to develop public social eating spaces around the country. There is a Cooperation Town movement based on Cooperation Kentish Town that provides a community space with healthy, cheap food, childcare and more.

The Covid 19 pandemic saw hundreds of mutual aid groups form around the country with local residents helping each other. There is the Southampton Social Aid Group working to benefit the people of Southampton.

Solidarity networks and base building

These combine workplace and community/social issues in a locality. Active groups and networks in Britain include Solidarity Federation, Angry Workers, Teesside Solidary Movement and Welsh Underground Network, Marxist Centre, Serve the People. There are also several self-managed social centres in the UK.

Social movement unionism

This is currently popular in the US, involving the combination of workplace unionists and social movements to tackle issues, civil and human rights and alter structures of law and political power. This article gives a history and critique of social movement unionism. This interview with a member of the UK National Union of Teachers (now the National Education Union) describes the three legs of a stool working together to make a strong union: bread and butter issues, professional issues, social justice and community campaigning.

Disability Movement

I have described the disability movement in chronological order. There are two useful books on the history of the disabled people’s movement.

  • ‘Disability Politics: Understanding Our Past, Changing Our Future’ by Mike Oliver and Jane Campbell, describes the movement from the 1960s to the 1990s.
  • ‘No Limits: The disabled people’s movement – a radical history’ by Judy Hunt describes five phases of the part of the disabled movement focused on having more control about where and how they live between the 1940s and 1990s:

“The first phase from the 1950s involved the expansion of segregated services for disabled people and their reactions to this.

In the second phase disabled people began to mobilise to address their social inequality, ending with the passing of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (CSDP) Act 1970.

During the third phase, 1970-1980, consolidation took place within the newly formed community welfare services which produced a corresponding reaction from disabled people. As they became more politicised a small radical tendency emerged.

In the fourth phase, 1981-1986, disabled people sought to represent themselves and develop alternative services. A marked change of political consciousness occurred and the social movement took off, ending with the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986.

In the final phase, 1986 onwards, the grass roots movement pursued a civil rights agenda to gain access to the personal freedoms and equality that disabled people had come to expect. But in the process some of the strength and benefits of collective practice were lost. Disabled people then faced the risk of losing their combined influence to defend the very rights they had fought so hard to win.”

Several websites list histories and timelines of disability and disabled people’s rights in Britain. [3]

The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) was formed in 1868. there was a Royal Commission on the Blind and Deaf in 1886. In 1890 the British Deaf Association was founded, and then in 1899, the National League of the Blind and Disabled was established as a trade union. [4]

Long-running campaigns by these groups improved the lives of disabled people and united deaf and blind people to campaign for themselves (British social movements since 1945 p25). The Royal National Institute for the Deaf was founded in 1911, now called Action on Hearing Loss. This led to several legislative achievements such as the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, 1914 Elementary Education Act, 1920s Blind Persons Acts. The National League of the Blind organised the 1920 blind march to demand better working conditions and pay.

The 1944 Disabled Persons Employment Act introduced the first legal definition of a disabled person. The introduction of the NHS in 1948 brought in the welfare state and end the ‘deserving poor’ charitable approach to disabled people. [4]

In 1947 the National Federation of the Blind was founded.

In the 1940s/50s, the RNIB and the Spastics Society established several residential homes for disabled people. Before this, all disabled children and adults were forced into mental institutions. In

1951, the Greater London Association of Disabled People (GLAD) was created. In 1952, Scope was established, originally the Spastics Society. [4]

In 1965 the Disablement Income Group formed and campaigned for an adequate income for those disabled people who were not able to work. Disabled people struggled to find work due to discrimination by employers and a lack of access to buildings and public transport. [5]

There was a Disability Rally in London in 1966. In 1969, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Person‟s Bill was passed.

During the 1970s the Disabled Drivers’ Association (now called Mobilise) campaigned for disabled people to have more improved support with mobility. Buses and trains were not accessible so disabled people used the Invalid Tricycle car. Rallies were organised in London in the early 1970s. In 1971, the Association of Disabled People (APG) was established.

In 1972 Paul Hunt wrote a letter to The Guardian newspaper calling for equality for disabled people. This inspires the start of a united campaigning against discrimination and the formation of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) in 1973. UPIAS moved the focus away from welfare towards rights. It advocated the social model of disability. It identified the barriers disabled people face in society, not the medical conditions disabled people have. In 1976/77 Sisters against Disablement is founded by disabled feminists to promote “disabled women’s concerns and perspectives within the disabled people’s movement. Several members were founders of UPIAS.” [6]

The early 1980s saw the creation of the first UK Centres for Independent Living (CILs) in Hampshire, Derbyshire and Greenwich. 1981 was the United Nations International Year of Disabled People, leading to disabled people finding funding to set up groups and organisations. 1981 saw the establishment of the Disabled People’s International and the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP). In 1982 the Commission of Restrictions Against Disabled People (CORAD), campaigned for civil rights legislation, resulting in the Disability Discrimination Act. In 1988 People First was founded. The 1980s saw an increase in campaigning for Anti-Discrimination legislation, and the call for building and the environment to be made more accessible including housing, transport, education, work. Disabled people in Manchester successfully campaigned for the Town Hall to be made wheelchair accessible. These newly formed groups formed a national network, provided training and organised conferences to build the movement. During the 1980s, these organisations started campaigning that there should be “nothing about us without us” concerning decisions for disabled people’s services, facilities and accessibility. [7]

In 1990, the first Black Disabled People’s Network and several black mental health users groups are founded. The Campaign for Accessible Transport (CAT) is one of the first disabled people’s groups to use civil disobedience or direct action. This is non-violent and can sometimes end up breaking the law. In 1991, Regard is founded to challenge homophobia in the disabled people’s movement and the exclusion of disabled people from the LGBTQI+ community. Disability Awareness In Action is established in 1992 to protect disabled people’s human rights.

During the 1990s CAT and Block Telethon, establish the disabled people’s Disability Action Network (DAN) and carry out 100s of protest actions. “DAN formed from disabled people’s frustration at the lack of success by other ways (such as discussion) to secure the means for disabled people to be included as equal members of society. DAN, alongside many other disabled people, have campaigned by protest and lobbying for more than just legislation. It was not only by changing the law that disabled people fought to change our lives.”

In 1994 the Tory government defeats the Civil Rights (Disabled Personal) Bill but the public outrage resulted in the Tories introducing government legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995. This was also brought about by years of national campaigning by disability activists starting in the 1970s. The Act “outlaw discrimination against disabled people. The DDA is limited in scope and the duty to treat people equally is subject to a reasonableness caveat. The definition of disability is based on the medical model”

There was a successful campaign against “Telethon” in the 1990s. This was a television show that raised money for charity but disabled people believed that the language used images were insulting and showed disabled people to be objects of pity. Piss On Pity was part of this campaign.

Disabled people continued to campaign around accessibility in the 1990s. They joined trade unions to apply pressure around accessibility to union facilities. Also at social clubs. The longest-running and hardest fought campaign were to gain accessible public transport. Disabled people chained themselves to buses and trains, blocked roads to raise awareness. Following the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 it took transport providers a long time to act.

For the independent living part of the movement, campaigning by the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP) resulted in the passing of the Community Care (Direct Payments) Act which resulted in direct payments from the state to disabled people. In 1996, BCODP establishes the National Centre for Independent Living (NCIL) to promote independent living options for disabled people. [7]

Here is a history of the independent living movement from the 1970s to 2003.

Campbell and Oliver gives an assessment of the movement in the 1990s in chapter 9 of ‘Disability Politics Understanding Our Past, Changing Our Future’.

In 2015 there was an exhibition in Manchester to marks 20 years of the Disability Discrimination Act and pays tribute to the activists who helped bring it about.

In 2000, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) was established. In 2003 it was agreed in Parliament that British Sign Language (BSL) would be recognised as an official language. But it is still not taught in schools and Deaf people still find it difficult to find interpreter services.

“The right for disabled people to continue to live, and also to live in the community rather than institutions, has dominated campaigns since the turn of the new century. Changes in priorities and budget cuts in local authorities have meant a reduction in basic services provided to disabled people, such as money to employ someone to assist with daily tasks. Having to rely on the unpaid ‘help’ of friends and family can deny a disabled person privacy, the chance to live their life as they choose, and the level of independence from their family that non-disabled people expect.”

There has been a lot of focus on ‘the right to die’ recently but this has drowned out disabled people’s right to live. Disabled people have been campaigning on the right to live independently, for basic human rights such as the right to housing, family life dignity.

The Labour government welfare reform in the 2000s looked at the type of benefits for disabled people who are not able to work, with a change to eligibility criteria affecting who can receive benefits. “This has led to much anxiety and distress for disabled people who are genuinely not able to work either because reasonable adjustments are not possible in the workplace to accommodate the impact of their impairments or because of continued prejudice by employers… These changes would put much pressure on disabled people to try unsuitable jobs, just to be able to earn a living in an inflexible labour market.”

In 2005, the DDA amendment act was passed. This extended anti-discrimination protection to land transport, small employers and private clubs extends the definition of disability and introduces a public duty to promote disabled people’s equality and include disabled people.

In 2006, the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities is established and the UK Government agrees to roll out individual budgets nationally. [7]

Oliver and Barnes give a critical assessment of the movement from 2006 here.

In the 2000s in the US, the Disability Justice Movement was formed:

“Disability Justice was built because the Disability Rights Movement and Disability Studies do not inherently centralize the needs and experiences of folks experiencing intersectional oppression, such as disabled people of color, immigrants with disabilities, queers with disabilities, trans and gender non-conforming people with disabilities, people with disabilities who are houseless, people with disabilities who are incarcerated, people with disabilities who have had their ancestral lands stolen, amongst others.”

In 2010, the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government formed and introduced austerity in the UK. Disabled people were targeted through welfare reform and independent living cuts. Ellen Clifford explains the war on disabled people since 2010 in this article and her 2020 book ‘The War on Disabled People Capitalism, Welfare and the Making of a Human Catastrophe’

Several new disabled people’s groups and organisations formed to struggle against the cuts to disabled people’s state support since 2010.

Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) was formed in 2010: “DPAC is for everyone who believes that disabled people should have full human rights and equality. It is for everyone that refuses to accept that any country can destroy the lives of people just because they are or become disabled or have chronic health issues. It is for everyone against government austerity measures which target the poor while leaving the wealthy unscathed. It is for everyone who refuses to stay silent about the injustices delivered by wealthy politicians on ordinary people and their lives.”

Here is a list of DPAC campaigns and actions. Here is a report from it 2014 conference.

Other groups that formed are Black Triangle, Liberation Network of People with Disabilities (LNPD), Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN) and Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA).

Also Disability Equality Act Labour: “We are a Facebook group of disabled Labour Party members, ex Labour Party members and Party members who support our work. We include ex Party members who have left because of harassment and victimisation as a result of the Labour Party not complying with the disability elements of the Equality Act 2010”

In 2011, the Hardest Hits Campaign was launched:

“Disabled people, those with long-term conditions and their families are being hit hard by cuts to the benefits and services they need to live their lives. The Hardest Hit campaign, organised jointly by the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) and the UK Disabled People’s Council, brings together individuals and organisations to send a clear message to the Government: stop the cuts. There was a protest in May 2011, when an estimated 8,000 disabled people marched on Parliament, and further protests across the country on the 22nd October.” [8]

Disability Rights UK has been active since at least 2012, led and run by disabiled people to “influence regional and national change for better rights, benefits, quality of life and economic opportunities for Disabled people.”

This 2014 thesis gives a history of the UK disability movement and the challenges it has faced. Here is a recording of a 2018 The World Transformed event on Fighting Disabled People’s Exclusion. Here is a video and notes on running a workshop on Disability Oppression 101 from 2020, by DPAC. The ‘Tribune’ magazine has written about the ‘war on disabled people’ over the last 12 years.

MillionsMissing is a global campaign for myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) health equality. Since 2016 it has been organising demonstrations around the world for equitable research funding, clinical trials, medical education and public awareness for ME.


  1. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/labour-to-train-members-in-special-campaign-skills-as-jeremy-corbyn-pushes-for-snap-election_uk_5ba66170e4b069d5f9d352db, https://labourhub.org.uk/2020/01/29/community-organising-works/, https://tribunemag.co.uk/2020/02/in-defence-of-community-organising, https://tribunemag.co.uk/2020/05/labour-still-needs-community-organising-but-it-has-to-change/, https://newsocialist.org.uk/activists-organisers/, https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/labour-party-community-organising-unit-report_uk_5e30606ac5b6dc843407b03a
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_wealth_building
  3. https://www.disabilitymedwaynetwork.org.uk/2019/01/19/a-history-of-disability-rights-in-the-uk/, https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/, https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/1945-to-the-present-day/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability_in_the_United_Kingdom, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000rh1g, https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/453, http://blog.plain-sense.co.uk/2013/03/new-disability-history-timeline.html, https://ukdhm.org/v2/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/B5-Disability-Time-Line-NHS-North-West.pdf, http://newcastlevisionsupport.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Timeline-History-Disability.pdf
  4. http://newcastlevisionsupport.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Timeline-History-Disability.pdf
  5. https://historicengland.org.uk/content/docs/research/brief-history-disabled-peoples-self-organisation-pdf/
  6. https://historicengland.org.uk/content/docs/research/brief-history-disabled-peoples-self-organisation-pdf/, http://newcastlevisionsupport.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Timeline-History-Disability.pdf, https://www.voicemag.uk/feature/4160/the-history-of-disability-activism
  7. http://newcastlevisionsupport.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Timeline-History-Disability.pdf, https://historicengland.org.uk/content/docs/research/brief-history-disabled-peoples-self-organisation-pdf/
  8. http://disability-equality.org.uk/history/