Tag Archives: direct action

The Revolting Left

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the protests outside the Conservative Party conference and direct action more generally. This has coincided with the release of a new film about the Suffragette movement, which I haven’t seen yet.

It strikes me that much of the debate surrounding direct action and protest exists inside of a bubble in which neither side is especially interested in the truth. We’ve had a week in which journalists and Tory delegates have been acting mortally offended at being called “Tory scum” and spat at and have rushed to draw a direct link between these protests and Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, Corbyn supporters have been downplaying the connection between the two and talking about how these protests reflect genuine anger at Conservative austerity measures.

Both sides are full of it.

While I doubt that the protesters have exactly improved Corbyn’s public image, they have probably not done him any harm either. Both sides are simply too entrenched. Swing voters, watching it from afar, might well not exactly be impressed by the actions but it is unlikely to make them form a strong opinion of a party leader who has publicly called for a “kinder, gentler” politics the other week. The connection between the two can be made, but it is the political class who will make it, not floating voters.

Meanwhile, the people who claim this is some spontaneous outpouring of outrage are downplaying the fact that this is a deliberate strategy. And it is a strategy which, broadly speaking, has worked. It is hard to believe that the pressure on Cameron and Osborne about tax credits would have been anything like as intense if the conference hadn’t had a backdrop of angry protest. Yes, journalists complained about being spat at – but they also went out and spoke to the protestors, who had plenty to say about tax credits, benefits, housing and poverty more generally. It might be pretty unpleasant to be have to endure, and you can ask questions about what motivates someone to spend a week shouting angrily at passers by, but the fact is that it kept the issue they wanted on the agenda. If they hadn’t been there, Cameron et al would have had a much easier time of it.

The Westminster circus has a vested interest in dismissing the effectiveness of direct action, but the fact is that this sort of protest time and again simply works. The problem is that its most keen proponents all too often believe it is the only thing that works, and that all you need to do to win any campaign is get into a punch up outside Downing Street. I remember talking at a People and Planet conference a few years ago in which my fellow speaker extolled precisely this position. Among other things, he claimed, the woman’s right to vote was solely won because of the Suffragettes’ hunger strikes, damage to property and self-sacrifice.

He has a point. The suffrage movement had reached an impasse in 1906 due to the perfidy of the Liberal government. They managed to keep the issue alive at a time when decades of patient political action had reached an impasse. Here’s the thing though: the came after decades of political action, and it didn’t actually lead to women getting the vote. That happened later, after World War I and four years after the Suffragettes had ceased their actions. And it was another decade after that before we had universal suffrage.

This isn’t to disparage the Suffragettes, merely to point out that the heart of their success was rooted in the fact that their actions slotted into a wider political movement. One of the most frustrating things over the last five years has been watching the modern protest “movement” attempting to make similar progress without any interest in conventional political lobbying. UK Uncut is widely credited for pushing tax avoidance up the pole, but again there was already a political movement making waves about that topic (and it’s both low-hanging fruit and a political El Dorado which seldom delivers because it doesn’t look at the more structural problems with tax; but that’s another topic). Other than that, protestors have made a lot of noise but very little substantial progress over the past half decade.

The rise of Corbyn, in theory at least, could bridge that divide. If both Labour and the protest movement are both pushing in the same direction, then it could prove effective. My problem with this however, is that I think Corbyn represents a leap too far in the opposite direction. While it is great for the protest movement to have “one of their own” leading Labour, the benefits for Labour are less clear. And Corbyn has seldom demonstrated much interest in the boring work of actually persuading people inside his party – let alone across the Commons floor. At this stage I’m not ruling anything out, but I struggle to see how the optimism currently rippling through the hard left has much basis in reality.

If the hard left is going to really make progress, I suspect it will need to meet the centre left halfway rather than simply bypassing it altogether. A bit of pragmatism all round would be helpful.

Why the green movement fails [ADDENDUM]

I went on the National Climate March yesterday, as those who read my tweets will be painfully aware. The march itself was the usual festive fun, although not well attended (the organisers say 10,000 people attended, the police say 5,000 – by my own estimate it was somewhere between the two):

(credit: Helen Duffett @ LibDemVoice)

I don’t usually stick around for the rallies of these things – I feel I’ve done my bit by marching – but as Cleggy was speaking I decided to hang about. I’m afraid that the speeches that followed highlighted for me everything that is wrong with the green movement.

The rally began with music by Seize the Day, a terribly earnest group of folk singers. Not content with singing songs, the lead singer (pace Bono), decided to try his hand at proselytising. I really do wish he’d kept his mouth shut. Leaving aside his rather confused attempt at sarcasm about being glad people hadn’t taken direct action against Tesco for selling patio heaters (I couldn’t work out if he was implying he was disappointed at the crowd’s failure to storm the nearby Tesco Metro), he ranted about how disgraceful it was that politicians had constantly failed to take action on climate change and called for people to “occupy” Parliament next year. At one point, I swear he said we needed to “tear down Parliament” to ensure that we have “proper laws.” Think about that for a second.

A bit later one of the other speakers denounced the fact that, as awareness of climate change has grown, the very same companies who grew rich from carbon fuels are now being allowed to diversify into environmentally friendly industries. Finally, speaker after speaker announced that the only way to make progress on the environment was to have more direct action. I’m afraid to say that, with the exception of Nick Clegg and to a certain extent Caroline Lucas (I’ll let her off for denouncing “that place behind me” – i.e. Westminster Abbey – for failing to take action on climate change; even the most fervant believer of the Da Vinci Code would probably assume she meant the place on her right), the nonsense on show at the rally was of such a high quotient that it qualified as organic, sustainably-sourced fertiliser itself.

First of all, politicians. In the 13 years I’ve been involved in party politics, I can honestly say that – regardless of political party – the average MP is ahead of the curve when it comes to the environment than the average person in the street. It isn’t that MPs “don’t listen,” it’s that they listen only too well. They talk to people on the doorsteps and in their surgeries, they read the opinion polls, and they are made painfully aware, day after day, that the vast majority of the public do not consider real action to minimise climate change to be a serious option. Far from being undemocratic, MPs are only too willing to bend to public opinion when it comes to this issue.

Now, it’s true that the political system could be more responsive than it is, although constitutional reform wasn’t on the CACC’s list of demands, but that responsiveness works both ways. If we had an electoral system which meant the Green Party was proportionally represented in Westminster, we’d also pave the way for UKIP, and even more denier-oriented parties to get representation.

Where the political class has arguably failed is to provide decent leadership on this issue. Even though there were two party leaders speaking at the rally yesterday, neither of the two main parties have taken a stand and held firm even as public opinion oscillates between environmentalism and consumerism. Dave Cameron was notable by his absense yesterday. But the green movement itself is hardly guiltless in this regard. Interest in the environment has increased substantially in recent years, largely thanks to Al Gore, but it barely hit the mainstream before being dumped in favour of economic concerns. If the green movement can’t inspire the public, it can hardly blame the political class for failing to do its job for it.

Regarding big business, here is an inconvenient truth the environmentalists themselves need to recognise: if we are to achieve a global shift towards green technology, Big Oil are going to end up being a large part of the solution not the problem. They have the spending power, the infrastructure and the global reach. Tear them down and nothing will replace them for decades.

Complaining about them for moving into the biofuels business, and implying this is all part of some vast, anti-green conspiracy, is just stupid. Cast your mind back five years ago and you will find that the biggest champions for biofuels (CACC insist on calling them agrofuels – presumably because it sounds a bit like “aggro” – but it should be agrifuels, surely?), was the green movement. Just 18 months ago I had a very loud and vocal argument with a friend, who fancies himself to be both an environmentalist and a scientist, who denied there was any evidence at all to suggest that biofuels could be environmentally harmful. Despite the West Wing being ahead of the curve on this one, awareness of how self-defeating the switch to biofuels could be has come extremely late. To hector corporates in the unforgiving tones that were on display yesterday is extremely misplaced.

On the merits of direct action, I would certainly agree that it has its place and if environmentalists want to try occupying the Houses of Parliament then good luck to them. But was the vote for women won by the Suffragette, as Caroline Lucas suggests? Only partly. It was the suffragists who did all the spadework; the Suffragette’s switch to direct action in reaction to Asquith’s betrayal may have kept the issue in the public eye, but it was the economic necessity of the post-War period that lead to women getting the vote. Maybe what we need to get action on the environment is a bloody great war? Any takers? No?

But again we return to the fact that the general public is largely disinterested and is resoundingly hostile to any meaningful action that might affect them. Direct action can raise awareness but ultimately, on this issue, it has thus far resoundingly failed to change hearts and minds in sufficient numbers. Direct action can’t affect a paradigm shift, it can only give voice to something that is already there.

The green movement has proven itself to be extremely good at winning battles, particularly battles that both the crusties and the nimbies can agree on, but it is losing the war. I wouldn’t bet on Heathrow’s third runway being built – the opposition has reached a real head of steam now – but when it comes to significant global action the picture is more mixed.

The environmental movement is overdue a rethink. It is for this reason that I very nearly decided to go to the march with these guys, Serious Change:

I didn’t in the end because, to be frank, I’m already in the “serious change” business. That is, I’ve joined a political party, work within that party to ensure it is as environmentally conscious as possible, and work to get that party elected (less so these days, but still). If every individual who marched yesterday joined one of the main parties and campaigned within it for change, I can guarantee that things would change pretty quickly. But just as the general public requires a paradigm shift to recognise how its behaviour and attitude is destroying the planet, so the green movement needs a paradigm shift to recognise that the boring old job of influencing the public and working with the dreaded “men in gray suits.” Party politics is often far too slow, and it needs outside influences, but the greenies allergy to engaging with it has become self-defeating. It is time to stop the anti-politics bollocks and recognise that if you are interested in anything more than the onanism of hairshirt puritanism, you have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

ADDENDUM: Yoink! I missed out a whole section of what I planned to write!

At the end of the march, one disappointed Lib Dem said to me that he felt we should have encouraged people to go on a by-election campaign instead. Well, leaving aside for one moment the fact that that wouldn’t have worked on me, I couldn’t disagree less. It shouldn’t be a prime concern of the party, but turning up to marches like this is crucial. If the change in mindset highlighted above is to happen, the Lib Dems will play a crucial role in bridging the chasm between mainstream politics and the green movement. Although my much ridiculed idea for a samba band has wider applications too, it would be a real boost in getting people at demos to, quite literally, dance to our tune.

But for it to be really worthwhile, much more work needs to go into promoting the event and getting people to come along. We did this for the 2003 Iraq march and it paid dividends. Looking at the free applications available online at our disposal these days, it can be done with far less effort now.

This really ought to be something Liberal Youth should be excelling in. Genuine question: what’s stopping you?