What next for protest?


Photo: Louis Mignot
Photo: by author

The ‘Fuck the Tories’ demonstration earlier this month was the embodiment of everything wrong with the way the Left use protest. Protest is a form of conflict; it is unique. Ideally a peaceful protest raises the issues at the heart of society between the people, the police, and those in power. Protest is not only a human right but a human responsibility. If you genuinely disagree with something in society it is your duty to make your voice heard. If you won’t, who will? It does not matter what the issue is. If you feel aggrieved, make your voice heard.

I speak as a member of the Left, and while there is no shortage of those on the Left who are vocal, the problem is the dearth of rational, constructive thinking. There is a culture among ‘radical’ demonstrators to view anyone interested in placing a limit of action or directing it in a different way as a ‘scab’ or a ‘splitter’. If you don’t agree with everything they say, you are their enemy. And, well, then you may as well be a Tory.

A shambolic demonstration

The demonstration on the 9th was an entirely confused event. The sudden, flash demo organised days before was, while well attended, a shambles. No constructive message, no unity of method or tactics and no positive media representation. These three problems are entirely connected. A failure to properly appreciate what was wanted meant that there was no real understanding of how to behave to bring about the desired ends.

The political aim for most, I genuinely believe, was to raise the many issues with First Past the Post and our democratic system. This, as far as I am concerned, should have been the real focus of our protest that day. While I, like everyone else, am hugely angry with and afraid of the Conservatives’ policy plans, that day was not the time to have that as our primary message.

The Conservatives got into power with 37% of the vote and with badly constructed constituencies. This, coupled with the factionalism of left-wing parties, is the primary reason why the Conservatives were able to grow their majority in Parliament. Therefore, the problems with First Past the Post should have been the main message we carried; our banners, our chants and our interviews with media should have put this across.Instead we had Class War and other radical groups calling for the ‘devastation’ of the wealthy; others called for the Conservatives to get out of government; some even brought the issue of climate change with them.

All of these are, to varying degrees, entirely legitimate concerns, but, on a pragmatic and sensible level, it is hugely difficult to give each of these a hearing in the media. No one is going to read an article that details all of the various issues raised at a protest. Instead the headlines are caught by graffiti, violence and disorder. These acts, usually committed by the minority of those on the ‘radical’ end of the Left, are hugely divisive.

Photo: Louis Mignot
Photo: Louis Mignot

Peaceful direct action

Peaceful direct action is a fantastic way of achieving change, history has proven that. The 1960s sit-ins are a prime example of this. There is a subtle difference between the sit-ins by African-Americans in the 1960s and the cone-throwing, smoke-bombing behaviour of our radical wing.

The sit-ins broke a law that was the direct subject of the protest. Racist laws prevented certain sections of society from going in certain places. Breaking these laws not only highlighted them to the media, but they also set a precedent for change. The demonstration against the Tories on the 9th, however, saw direct, violent action that was entirely directed at the wrong targets. The graffiti of ‘Fuck Tory Scum’ on the Women of World War Two memorial is a prime example of this. Looking at the graffiti, one might think that the protester was attacking the women of World War Two for being Tories!

Similarly, attacking police officers (who are also going to suffer at the hands of the Conservatives) for simply doing their jobs is not in any way legitimate in the light of our aims. The aim – for sake of argument, to challenge First Past the Post – is only subverted and trivialised by chants of ‘Fuck the Police’. Protests against the police, such as those seen after the shooting of Mark Duggan, are a different matter.

The fact that these acts are entirely divergent from our aims are not only divisive within the movement, but they allow the media and our political opponents to paint us with the same brush: we’re rioters, anarchists, and thugs. At least that is what the media will tell you. This should not be shrugged off, as some of those on the Left do.

Political change requires support from those outside of one’s immediate circle and the narrative in the media does not help us. To illustrate the point, Class War, a political party calling anyone in government a ‘wanker’, received 526 votes in 2015, a figure so negligible that it represented 0% of the vote nationwide. This is down 0.3% from 2010. The growth in violent direct action from these groups has clearly been ineffective.

Photo: Louis Mignot
Photo: Louis Mignot

How to create change?

This brings us to the issue of how best to create change. If we want to change the voting system, how is throwing a cone at a police officer’s head going to help? Unless by the butterfly effect it creates a change of unforeseeable events leading to Utopia, I fail to see it. The police may be the immediate physical barrier between demonstrators and those democratically elected to be in power (and so they should be) but that does not make them part of the problem. Moreover, the violence, as far as I saw, was instigated by a small Black Bloc outside Downing Street as they tried to breach the outer fence. As a result of this, the police used snatch tactics to arrest the perpetrators. Since then, the actions of the police have been labelled ‘disgusting’ and ‘sinister’. Yet, surely, a crime is a crime. Just because you do it in a political context does not mean you can behave with impunity.

I, and I hope I am not alone, do not want to see David Cameron dragged out of Downing Street by a group of protesters dressed head-to-toe in black. I want to see him and his party fall into irrelevance in the face of their failed, damaging policies, triggering the rise of a true, united and reinvigorated left wing in Britain.

How do we do this? We demonstrate effectively in the streets. We build a unified narrative across all elements of our end of the spectrum. We decide which party is best to represent us. We vote as a bloc, and if they fail to deliver, we refuse to vote for them again. The instance of the Liberal Democrats is the perfect illustration. The wave of protest against them has, I am sure, driven our message of discontent home. Our withdrawal of votes from them has seen them lose 49 seats and led to the resignation of the man who perjured himself to us. Try convincing me there is no point in voting now.

Before all this, we must push for true electoral reform. The results of 2015’s elections have shown that this system prevents certain parties, regardless of their level of popular support, from properly creating change. The Green Party, for instance, remained at one seat. They had 1,157,613 votes. This is more than the SNP and how many seats did they get? More than fifty times more. Our voting system handicaps parties that cannot stand in as many constituencies as others. Similarly, the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), are not a group that I am sad to see remain largely irrelevant in Parliament. However, if people voted for them, they deserve a proportional voice. To argue otherwise is to suggest that people should not have a say in politics and, if you think that, I have nothing to say to you.

Protests often devolve into a mass of people completely lacking in a sophisticated political narrative. The movement soon becomes the democracy of the loudest voice; the individual with the megaphone dictates the message, the direction of the march. The most dramatic action decides the public perception of the event. The interplay between our political aims and our strategy must be properly understood by everyone. The political aim dictates the strategy.

If you disagree with Rupert Murdoch’s press ownership, how best to change it? Campaign for a boycott of his papers, start petitions, lobby Parliament, protest outside his headquarters (as some from Occupy did) and establish an effective counter-narrative. If one disagrees with First Past the Post, how best to create change? Lobby Parliament and protest peacefully. If you want a revolution, perhaps violent action is the only way – I’ve never heard of a revolution where not one drop of blood was spilt – but I think you’d be in the great minority if you were to call for a British version of 1789.

With regard to what we should do over the next five years, we must protest even more, but these protests must be in the image constructed above. They must have a clear political message with a strategy and set of tactics that work alongside it. Our protests must grab sympathetic media coverage: defacing war memorials or attacking police officers does not help that. We must campaign for changes to First Past the Post alongside campaigning for our chosen party(s) on the streets. We must work in our communities to fight the effects of Conservative policy, organise our communities to support each other and raise awareness of the true effects of Tory policy. They will quote economic figures; we will show the human side. We must make sure it is seen and countered.

Finally, above all, we must vote. Telling someone not to vote is hugely damaging to our democracy and, therefore, our cause. Not only does it reduce our political weight and capacity to create change, but it allows those in power to identify their support and focus all of their policies on them. There is no party of non-voters. No party of spoilt ballots. Get out and campaign, get out and vote.

Due to personal circumstances, the author of this article wishes to remain anonymous.

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