Questioning the Future of Protest

26th November 2010

To see so many young people across Glasgow, across Scotland, and across the UK, taking part in political action was a hugely uplifting event. To see around one thousands people gathered in George Square, when it was cold and as it was getting dark, was inspirational. It was inspirational as it confounds the belief that young people no longer care about the world around them, about our politics and about our society. We are not apathetic. It was inspirational as it was self-less. It is not current students that will face the brunt of education cuts and higher fees, it is those who will come after us. Yet today it mattered to us all.

For many this will be the first time they have ever taken part in any widespread civil event. It was an empowering experience for young people to feel a sense of community and unity for the first time in their lives; and this is only the beginning of that.

The anger and emotion tonight was also palpable. The pride I and many others felt while voting in our first national election has quickly dissipated in the face of political hypocrisy. Yes, we knew cuts were coming; yes, coalitions require compromise; yet the manner in which the Lib Dems now stand steadfastly with the Tories in all policy, including education, has been astounding. To see a party who so enthusiastically courted the student vote, who toured campuses, who signed pledges, abandoning their stance on fees and funding, has been equally eye-opening and despairing. The manner in which many young people felt they could influence politics through the ballot box has been tarnished, and now the Lib Dems have been sharply and suddenly submerged within the Conservative brand.

Yet this is not a new feeling. The anger and resentment of those that marched today, and those who protested at Milbank, goes beyond Nick Clegg. This is how people feel when they are ignored. When a million marched against Iraq the Government refused to listen; when the NUS lobbied and argued against tuition fees, New Labour scrapped through. Now we face a huge swathe of measures unmentioned at the election merely months ago. It’s not surprising that people feel they have to do more than march to have their voices heard.

May witnessed a fake election. None of these decisions were discussed or debated. There was no admission of the half a million jobs to be axed in the public sector. There was no admission of the hike in fees, the abandonment of arts degrees, or the cutting of the EMA. There was no Tory policy on further privitising the NHS, which Ministers admit was hushed up. Yet now, having gained a hollow mandate, MPs seek to justify their position and their decisions upon a debate which never took place. I stood on the Clyde and watched Clegg warn emphatically of a ‘Tory VAT Bombshell on the poorest’, months before helping to implement it himself. Without truth in an election campaign, the government has no right or legitimacy to govern.

Despite this tough and tragic reality, circumstances wont breed defeatism but unity. As the coalition targets students, police, council staff, teachers, fire-fighters, the unemployed, and as a result hurts businesses and growth, people will begin to rally around a common cause. And it is clear from today that people will take strength in that. However, this opportunity is a challenging one. People are united only in their opposition, and their alternatives are varied, sometimes unclear or non-existent. So in trying to express grave dissatisfaction with these political decisions there has to be a focus on bringing people together, on supporting a set of basic ideas and principles, and most importantly, winning the argument and winning support. To do this requires more that throwing out sentiments of derision and hate – exemplified in rants and chants of four letter words.

Within all the positives of today, it was disappointing to witness repetition after repetition of empty tory bashing. Yes – the Thatcherite ideology caused great damage and division to this country; however, it was not simply our oppositionalism which brought people to protest today, and it certainly wont be anger, opposition and insults alone which unites communities. That cannot be forgotten.

Chants of ‘scum’ help no one. Anyone drawn to the use of the word to describe a political opinion is focused on insulting and demeaning rather than spreading an idea. To such people I would say: ‘It says more about you as a person than it says about who you are attacking.’ Instead of screaming about the nasty party, we need to target their arguments on the deficit and on what type of society they believe in. Why is this important? Because, firstly, swearing and accusing is not a way to engage with the general public. To explain – as the IFS have stated – that privitising education and tripling fees doesn’t make the Government much money in the long term, and doesn’t cut the deficit at all, is far more likely to generate debate and demonstrate why the Government are really wrong.

This also counter-acts many press misconceptions. With protests the press want to cover confrontation. That’s why at Milbank they’ll cover property damage, and that’s why in London they’ll talk about a wrecked van rather than the issues. They’ll belittle the people involved. They’ll say it’s self-interest. They’ll say it’s a minority. They’ll say people don’t really care.

To beat such sentiments of misconception  protest movements have to be smart. They have to avoid falling into the shallow accusations of simply shouting towards the people in charge. It is difficult to sympathise with students when the newspaper, when the television is constantly repeating the need to ‘deal with the deficit’, and the current assumption is that the state has to downsize, rather than have the market reformed. People being angry isn’t enough to convey or confront this reality, but being constructive is.

An alternative response is a broad, radical and positive one. The problem with protests alone is that it fails to truly document what you positively believe in: what you are defending. When Jimmy Reid led the ‘work-in’ on the Clyde the media couldn’t demonise his actions, and the public could understand what was being fought for and the logic of their situation: they created empathy. The shipbuilders wanted to work, they had work to do – and they refused to be shut down. That is determination for a cause, it was one that couldn’t be condemned or ignored, and they won.

It is fundamental if we wish to defend education and the good society that we demonstrate a similar passion and dedication to it. Perhaps reading a few extra books or doing well in December’s exams may fall short of such a statement, but perhaps creating some form of inclusive event for discussion, for dialogue, for learning, would do so. To be positive, to unite people, and to win an argument on education, I would back a ‘teach-in’ in Glasgow in the coming months. This doesn’t mean that demonstrations, lobbying, voting or occupations are useless – all forms of action and protest can play their part. However, if there was to be an event that signified people’s determination to protect jobs and funding, then I believe this would very much do the cause, its image, and its future, the world of good.

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