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.